At this point in his career — after the string of injuries that plagued him for now a season and a half — it seems difficult, if not downright impossible, to explain Carl Pavano. Of course, many Yankees fans try to explain it with a common New York phrase: “He’s a bum!” Given the way events have unfolded, it’s tough to disagree. From the shoulder tendonitis that mysteriously lasted half a season to his buttocks injury in Spring Training 2006 to the car accident debacle on the eve of his supposed return, Pavano has proven to be an enigma in New York.
Some say he can’t handle the pressure of New York, a la Kenny Rogers. Actually, most say that. The rest are left in awe as he continues to somehow stay off the field. Even with his supposedly intense winter workout regimen, it’s tough to find even slim hope that Pavano will be worth a fraction of his four-year, $39.95 million deal.
Even if he does stay healthy, ask many critics, can he be effective? It’s not like Pavano was a superstar when he signed with the Yankees. Rather, he was a pitcher who had shown flashes of very-goodness earlier in his career and who, in his prime, came through with a stellar walk year. So when he came to the Yankees and alternately stunk up the joint and pitched decently, it came as no surprise; we’ve all seen that story before.
When I heard Pavano was secluding himself in Arizona to work out this winter, I warmed to him a little. When I heard he was seeing the same sports psychologist that treated Scott Proctor prior to the 2006 season, I warmed some more. Maybe, just maybe he can help this team.
Maybe, maybe not. It really depends on his mental state. If he’s in as good a shape as he and his trainers let on, and if he’s dedicated to pitching in New York, he can be an asset. If he’s just half-assing it to put up a front, well, we have a problem. Unfortunately, we cannot measure someone’s mental state, so that question is difficult, especially at this point in the spring, to answer.
What we do have are trusty statistics to help us begin to figure out Pavano.
The easiest difference to notice between Pavano’s 2004 and his 2005, beyond the injury, is his 1.77-point spike in his ERA. However, since we know plenty of factors, some of which are out of the pitcher’s control, compose a pitcher’s ERA, we need to dig a bit deeper and find out why his ERA spiked.
First and foremost, batting average on balls in play (BABIP) was a major factor. There have been studies showing that pitchers have little to no control over balls put in play, so a spike or decline in BABIP can be largely attributed to luck. A .280 mark is about average. For context, Shawn Chacon posted a .240 BABIP in New York 2005, which positively affected his 2.84 ERA. Earlier in the year, in Colorado, he posted a much more normal .283 BABIP, leading to a 4.08 ERA. In 2004, Carl Pavano posted a .287 BABIP, an average mark, which led to his 3.00 ERA. In 2005, that number shot up to .333. Surely, the increasing of an occurrence over which a pitcher has little or no control contributed in some way to his 4.77 ERA.
We now move to the traditional peripherals to evaluate pitchers: strikeouts per nine, walks per nine, homers per nine, and groundball to flyball ratio. Here’s where things get strange: his strikeouts per nine declined, but so did his walks per nine. In fact, his walks per nine decreased at a greater rate, as evidenced by the rise in his strikeouts to walk ratio (2.84 in 2004, 3.11 in 2005). Though, the lesser walk rate can be correlated in some way to the rise in BABIP.
I’ll revisit the strikeout rate in just a moment. For now, let’s look at Pavano’s gopher ball rate. A normal 0.64 per nine innings in 2004, it more than doubled to 1.53 in 2005. Usually, this is due to an increase in the pitcher’s flyball rate. Of course, Pavano being Pavano, this is not the case. His groundball rate actually increased in 2005, going from 1.43 to 1.60. So what gives?
In my view, there are two factors playing here. First is Pavano’s focus. A rise in BABIP isn’t always attributable to bad luck. As Randy Johnson proved in his New York tenure, sometimes it’s because you get slapped around. That can be, though not necessarily, linked to a lack of focus. This seems at least a little probable, given Pavano’s transfer from the mostly empty Dolphin Stadium to the media circus in New York.
The second factor is his elbow. As we know, doctors found bone chips in his elbow in May of 2006. Bone chips can linger undetected for quite some time, so who knows when they initially appeared. I have always thought that, given the circumstances, it would seem in some way logical that the chips appeared in Spring Training 2005. That would help explain his raised home run rate and lowered strikeout rate. It would also explain his seemingly out of the blue shoulder tendonitis in June, 2005, as well as his ensuing rash of injuries (i.e., he was adjusting his motion to compensate for the discomfort in his elbow).
Of course, this theory is shot if the bone chips appeared in the spring of 2006. Then we’re back to a combination of luck and his mental state as the causes of his woes, both of which we cannot measure. Such is life with Carl Pavano.
Will he rebound in 2007? There’s absolutely no telling until April at the earliest. Even a stellar spring doesn’t mean much. He’s got to get out there and prove he can do it in games that count. What we do know is that if he returns his peripherals to 2004 form, we’ll get at least a No. 4 starter out of Pavano. However, none of that can be determined until April. We wait with bated breath.
See also: Mike’s draft preview, college edition.