Carl Pavano is hitting free agency for the third time in his career this offseason, and he’s hoping this can be the first time it doesn’t hit back. Neither of Pavano’s first two stops (Yankees and Indians) were too kind, but the Luigi look-alike is hoping that the third time is the charm.
Pavano’s first foray into free agency came on the heels of a 2004 season in which he posted a record of 18-8 with a 3.00 ERA. Times were much simpler then; flip-phones were still cool, I was fresh out of high school, and Jesse Behr was still a cub. More importantly, sabermetrics were still gaining momentum, which left Pavano’s sub-.500 career record (not of utmost importance, but perhaps still notable), sub 6.0 K/9, and 102 ERA+ largely unnoticed as he signed a four-year pact with the Yankees for just under $40 million.
Needless to say, it shouldn’t have taken the Yankees by surprise that Pavano would scuffle in the American League. After all, Pavano was heading to the superior offensive league (the AL as a whole hit .270/.338/.433 in 2004 while the NL hit .263/.333/.423), and arguably the best hitting division in baseball (only Tampa Bay had a sub-100 OPS+ in the American League East in 2004). Not many pitchers with Pavano’s mix of middling velocity (career average fastball speed of 90.4) and lackluster peripherals (career marks of 5.7 K/9, 2.5 BB/9, and 1.33 WHIP) survive long enough to tell about it in the unforgiving AL East.
A bad situation was exacerbated as Pavano only made 17 starts in his inaugural year in pinstripes, while he predictably posted a 4.77 ERA with skyrocketing WHIP and H/9 rates. Worse yet Pavano –or the American Idle as he was so aptly tabbed by the Yankee faithful— didn’t make a single appearance in 2006 and made only nine more before he was allowed to hobble away via free agency following the 2008 season. Pavano’s final line with the Yankees was ugly: 26 appearances with a 9-8 record, 5.00 ERA, and a 1.46 WHIP to go with a 4.6 K/9 mark. For further perspective, Pavano was paid $274,256 and change for each inning he pitched as a Yankee, although with stats like that perhaps they’d have paid him more to stay away.
Nevertheless, the Indians snapped Pavano up on a one-year, $1.5 million deal in hopes that he could rebuild his value while helping fill out a staff that included youngsters David Huff, Jeremy Sowers, Aaron Laffey, and Fausto Carmona in addition to the soon-to-be departed Cy Young award winner, Cliff Lee. Again Pavano didn’t exactly light it up in his new place of residence, but his season ERA of 5.10 was most certainly inflated, as his 3.92 SIERA would indicate. However, rather than finishing out the season toiling for a team that narrowly missed losing 100 games, Pavano was dealt on August 7 to the Minnesota Twins and was dropped right in the thick of what turned out to be an AL Central race for the ages, culminating in an instant classic-worthy game 163.
Perhaps to the surprise of a few people around the major leagues, Pavano accepted the Twins offer of arbitration after the 2009 season, and the two sides agreed on a one-year, $7 million contract. It turned out to be a good fit, as Pavano seemingly resurrected his career and image as he donned a superior fork duster while dusting off the competition as well. In fact, Pavano’s 2010 season looks eerily similar to the 2004 season that got Pavano to this point today: 17-11 record, 3.75 ERA, and 4.8 K/9. Again, it isn’t hard to see the record and think that Pavano was a real horse for the Twins in 2010, and in a way he certainly helped fill that role. Pavano tossed 221 innings (just an inning and change shy of his career high) and seven complete games (which matched his career total prior to 2010).
The main numbers Twins general manager Bill Smith and any of his brethren should focus on with Pavano, however, are few in number but foretell a possibly troubling future. Pavano struck out a paltry 4.8 batters per nine innings last season, while relying on solid infield defense from the likes of J.J. Hardy and Orlando Hudson. Pavano’s 2010 SIERA of 4.15 also served notice that he was remarkably lucky to escape 2010 with an ERA of 3.75, as that was markedly better than even his 90th-percentile PECTOA projection. Furthermore, Pavano got swings on 35.9 percent of his offerings which were out of the strike zone (major-league average was 29.3%), which is something that nobody can reasonably expect to happen again in 2011, especially when coupled with an increasing rate of contact made against him (72.6 percent rate for Pavano, 66.5 league average).
Now, there may be considerable uproar among fans in Minneapolis should the Twins not bring Pavano back, but it’s most definitely looking like that will be the case. It probably should be, as Pavano will bring draft pick compensation in one form or another, determined by the quality of team with which he signs. Not a bad return on the Twins' original investment of minor-leaguer Yohan Pino in the trade with the Indians. The Twins have more than enough comparable arms in their system to compensate for the loss of Pavano, and he would be wise to seek out one last big money contract prior to his age-35 season before riding off into the sunset to help his brother Mario rescue princesses and race through Mushroom Kingdom.
One rumor has the Florida Marlins in pursuit, and given his run of success in Miami, he may be well suited to take his talents there. A best guess might see Pavano netting a three-year contract at a value of about $10 million per season.
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A better question would be John Buck for $6 million per annum? Seriously?
Of course, the Marlins were one of the teams that the MLBPA complained about in terms of pocketing revenue sharing money and not investing it back into the team, and so going after a mid-level free agent may be one way to shake the pressure there.
I understand the effort to incorporate into our analysis the substantial amount of luck involved in baseball, but that doesn't mean that anything we can't explain must be serendipity.
It is possible that Pavano does something to entice hitters to swing at pitches out of the zone. Wasn't that a particular genius of Greg Maddux? Without contradicting your underlying point, it may very well be reasonable to expect Pavano to get swings on 35.9% of his offerings outside the strike zone in 2011.
I do agree, however, that career norms for Pavano rather than for the league seem like a more useful indicator in this case. If this swing rate isn't outside his norms, then ya, I would expect it to continue. Otherwise... not so much.
Nevertheless, there you have it.