Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Pavano on Opening Day? You are probably gonna want to pencil his name in. Very light pencil. And you might wanna buy a really good eraser.

Lack of Wang will make you do some crazy things. Carl Pavano, Opening Day starter for the New York Yankees? It will be interesting to see how this is spun over the next couple of days. The self-proclaimed (or Damon-proclaimed) "Best Team" in the Major Leagues is starting the season out with a guy who once injured his vagina while crocheting booties for his cat "Mr. Fancy Pants"? Really? And you're comfortable with that Yankees fan? Last Spring, Pavano entered camp with a bad back, he then pulled his ass while fielding a grounder, then strained his shoulder in rehab and then messed up his elbow so bad in his rehab start at Trenton that it took him almost a full week to regain full use of his arm, which ultimately led to surgery and another wasted year. I could go on all day making semi-humorous comparisons to frequently injured athletes and other pop culture half-men. And while that would be a lot of fun for me, the real issue with Pavano is a little harder to find than his multiple scars, bruises and ruptured ligaments. What should really bother Yankees' fans is his deteriorating play when not injured. In fact, one could make the argument that Pavano's injuries have done him good service in terms of PR because they've obscured the fact that he's kinda shitty at pitching. Actually, he's more than kinda shitty. He's just plain shitty. Don't believe me? Read on.

Pavano has only pitched 17 times since joining the A.L. Because of this low start total, I think it fair to forget about Pavano's A.L. run related stats (ERA, home runs against, etc.). Chalk it up to getting used to a new league, new parks and new faces. The switch to the A.L. is never an easy transition for a pitcher. You can pretty much just add a run to a any former NL starter's ERA when they make the move to the A.L. because the A.L. substitutes DH's for pitchers and A.L. lineups value offense in the bottom of the order over solid defense and the ability to bunt a guy over in the N.L. lineup (Pavano's ERA bump 3.00 ERA in 2004 to 4.77 in 2005). That change is understandable and Pavano doesn't need to apologize for it. The real problem is found in two other statistics: WHIP and k/bb. These stats shouldn't vary quite so much with the switch. A mild increase in WHIP is probably forgiveable, but Pavano has lost control and lost his ability to miss bats. At 31 injury riddled years-old, this is likely not an aberration but a downdward spiral.

WHIP (for those who are still reading) stands for walks + hits per innings pitched. So if a pitcher gave up 6 hits and 3 walks over 9 innings, his WHIP would be 1.00. In a vacuum, WHIP doesn't really prove or disprove anything in terms of your win loss record or ERA, two stats that matter to the public eye. But what WHIP does indicate is a pitcher's tendency to put himself in danger. A higher WHIP has a twofold effect: 1. more baserunners lead to more opportunity for runs; 2. more baserunners mean more at-bats which means more pitches which inturn leads to earlier exits for pitchers. An average WHIP for a 2006 starting pitchers (both leagues) was around 1.38. Essentially, if the average start is 6 innings and change, an average pitcher will put somewhere in the neighborhood of 8 people on base either via walk or hit. Assuming that an average of 38% of all baserunners score (total number of runs / total number of walks + hits), you can do the math and figure that higher WHIP leads to more runs (in general. And yes, I understand the convoluted arguments against this generalization, stat guy). So where does Pavano fit in with all of this? Well, his WHIP the last two years before the Yanks picked him up was outstandaing. He was in the 1.1-1.25 range, which is top 20 stuff (top 10 in 2004). This was great news as Pavano was hitting his prime pitching age and these numbers were a significant improvement over his earlier years in which he was in the 1.6-1.7 range (Rick Ankiel range). In 2005, when Pavano was "healthy," he had a mild reversion to his earlier days and his WHIP rose to the 1.45 range. Still respectable but in the A.L. East, where patience and power are gospel, you are just asking for trouble by unnecessarily putting people on base, unless you're Wang who can induce the ground out like few others. Two years later, it seems Pavano, understandably, hasn't gotten back into any sort of groove. While Spring Training stats are rarely indicative of a player's performance over the course of the season, Pavano's WHIP this Spring is at a gaudy 1.75. If this is a guy coming off a decent year or was a crafty veteran, you could just write this off as a guy trying to mess with arm angles or release points or a new pitch or something, but Pavano, for obvious reasons, hasn't earned the benefit of the doubt. Plus, if this were the sole issue with Pavano this Spring (in terms of stats), it probably wouldn't be all that alarming. Instead, the problems related to higher WHIP are magnified because Pavano can't strike anyone out anymore. Pavano's K/BB ration has historically been 2.5:1 in favor of Ks. Never a pure K dynamo, he was effective in getting batters to strikeout averaging 130ks and only 50 walks over his two best years. Even in his bad years he never walked anyone. He averaged less than 2 walks per start. This Spring, Pavano has struck out 5 guys in 18+ innings while walking 8. Admitedly, Pavano's best K/BB ratio wasn't exactly spectacular and placed him just outside the top 100 of the league, but his decline this Spring is troubling. Not because it's necessarily indicative of his performance this season, but because historically pitcher K rates in Spring Training are HIGHER than their season averages. The reason, as Joe Morgan always says (when it suits him), pitchers are usually ahead of hitters until about mid-May. It also helps that about half the batters Pavano's facing in the Spring will end up barnstorming the midwest on school buses two months from now. If you can't strikeout these guys, you may have some trouble getting Tejada or Manny to chase your weak ass shit. And yet somehow, through all of this, Pavano has been anointed the Opening Day starter over an ailing Pettitte, an old Mussina, a rookie in Igawa and whoever else they intend to move from the bullpen (Henn, Karstens or Mr. Bean) into the starter's role. It's like they're setting him up to fail, which is fine by me.

Look, it's easy--and fun--for me to go on about Carl all day. He's an easy target. I just want to be clear that to view Carl Pavano purely as an unfortunate injury plagued mess is to miss the more important point: he's not that sweet when he's healthy. And when the vaunted Yankees take on the Scott Kazmir and the D-Rays in the home opener, Carl's gonna get his ass handed to him. And it won't be due to injury. It will be because he kinda sucks. Just thought you should know.

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