Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Bringing Back Pavano

The Twins are currently amidst a two-week window of exclusive negotiating rights with internal free agents before the market opens on November 20. During that span, the team will have the opportunity to lock up Orlando Cabrera, Carl Pavano, Mike Redmond, Joe Crede and Ron Mahay before other teams can begin to make offers. From that group, we can already basically write a few names off. The trade for J.J. Hardy essentially closes the door on Cabrera, who will find offers to play shortstop elsewhere. Mahay is unlikely to return, with the bullpen picture for next season looking somewhat crowded as is. Redmond apparently wants to keep playing somewhere next year, but the smart money is against that team being the Twins. Crede could conceivably be brought back, but Bill Smith is almost certain to spend the winter months searching for better options before making a decision like that.

Which leaves us with Pavano. Smith has done nothing to hide his interest in retaining the veteran starter, who posted a 4.64 ERA and 1.37 WHIP in 12 starts for the Twins after being acquired from the Indians on August 7. The notion of re-signing Pavano doesn't seem to raise a lot of excitement amongst fans, but re-upping his contract might prove be the team's most reasonable method of ensuring that a reliable veteran arm is present in the 2010 rotation.

Pavano's overall numbers this season understandably don't get people into a lather. In 33 starts split between Cleveland and Minnesota, he went 14-12 with a 5.10 ERA and 1.38 WHIP -- thoroughly mediocre numbers. However, there are a few things that make Pavano an intriguing bet for next season.

For one thing, underlying statistics suggest that Pavano pitched better than those base numbers would indicate. His xFIP for the season was 4.17. Compare that to Scott Baker (4.46), Kevin Slowey (4.46), Nick Blackburn (4.78), Francisco Liriano (4.78) and Brian Duensing (4.97). Pavano gave up a lot of hits this year, but his BABIP of .330 was 22 points higher than his career average and 31 points higher than the major league average. Should that figure drop next season, he figures to do a great job of limiting baserunners given his outstanding control.

That outstanding control is something that cannot be ignored when analyzing Pavano. He ranked second among all American League starters in walks per nine innings with a rate of 1.76. His K/BB ratio of 3.76 ranked fourth in the AL, with Cy Young contenders Roy Halladay, Zack Greinke and Justin Verlander the only starters to sport better marks.

Of course, Pavano doesn't fall into that Cy conversation because he's just more hittable than those other elite hurlers. That's always been the case with Pavano; he's not dominant. Like Baker and Slowey, he falls into the mold of quality starting pitchers who limit walks and post respectable strikeout rates but give up a fair number of hits and a fair number of home runs. Keeping Pavano does not solve the Twins' need for a dominating power pitcher at the top of the rotation. But solving that particular issue will be a lot more difficult than some seem to realize.

Given the Twins' budget constraints, signing a John Lackey in free agency is out of the question. So here are the three viable methods of attaining a power arm that can serve as the team's ace next season:

1) Trade for an established top-of-the-rotation starter, like Roy Halladay and Josh Johnson. These two names were mentioned by Joe Christensen in his Star Tribune article yesterday. Such a move would not be characteristic for this franchise, and I'm very skeptical as to whether they have the pieces to pull of a blockbuster trade of this magnitude anyway. Not likely.

2) Sign a high-risk/high-reward free agent starter with injury concerns, such as Rich Harden or Erik Bedard. Harden's name has been very popular among Twins fans, but what people need to realize is that plenty of clubs around the league need pitching help and the Twins aren't the only ones who are going to think to themselves, "Hey, Harden's value is probably down due to his injury concerns, maybe we can get a good deal on him!" I'm all for signing a high-upside pitcher one a make-good short-term deal, but many of these starters are going to end up signing for more than people think. And once you get beyond a certain point of guaranteed money, these types of signings just stop being a good risk for a team with the Twins' budget constraints.

3) Hope that Francisco Liriano regains his second-half 2008 form. Liriano is the only pitcher in the organization right now with a history of pitching up to the level of a bona fide big-league ace. Even as one of his biggest supporters, I have a hard time trusting him to return to top form any time soon after his disastrous 2009 campaign.

Relying on any of those three options is a major gamble. Pavano is a pretty safe bet, though. He seemed to put any injury concerns behind him this season by racking up nearly 200 innings of work without issue. He fits right into the Twins' strike-throwing mold and seemed to have a positive impact on the hometown club after coming over via trade. While I wouldn't put much stock into it, team officials may take note of the fact that the Twins' team ERA was 4.67 prior to Pavano's arrival and 4.15 after he joined the rotation. It also certainly doesn't hurt that he was absolutely dazzling in his ALDS start against the Yankees.

So, the only remaining question is one of price. Prior to this season, Pavano hadn't put together a full season at the major-league level since 2004, so last winter he was forced to settle for a make-good one-year deal (the kind described in Option No. 2 above) that guaranteed only $1.5 million. He ended up earning close to $5 million with incentives, and he'll surely be looking for a raise next year. In my offseason blueprint, I suggested that the Twins bring Pavano back on a two-year, $12 million deal, hoping that his desire to return to Minnesota and the comfort of a multi-year deal might convince him to settle for a relatively modest raise in salary. He could try venturing into free agency in search of a larger gurantee, but one healthy year doesn't erase all his past injury concerns, and the fact that his actual numbers weren't all that great should play against him.

In the aforementioned Star Tribune article, Christensen quoted Smith as saying "if there's a veteran starter or two that's a good fit for us, then we'll proceed accordingly," and concluded that the Twins' GM might be tipping his hand regarding his offseason priorities. Even though Pavano is merely a solid middle-of-the-rotation starter, bringing him back should be a priority. Engaging in the difficult task of uncovering an ace with limited resources can come afterward.

19 comments:

ScottyB said...

The one thing you didn't mention is that against 2 of our main division rivals, the Sox and the Tigers, Pavano was 6-2, with a 2.81 ERA, while averaging over 7 innings per start. He was well accepted in the clubhouse, and as you said fits the Twins mold of pitchers. Sign Pavano and then go after a Bedard, Harden or Sheets.

JK said...

I think that his type B status seals his exit, assuming he declines arbitration. A sandwich pick is worth 2-3M on average. To make it worthwhile for the twins, Pavano would have to take a discount.

Anonymous said...

JK makes a good point.

What if Jon Garland were available for similar money to Pavano? 8 years in a row he's made more than 31 starts, more than 190 innings, and posted an ERA under 5.00. He's Pavano without the risk.
-ossieO

Anonymous said...

Nick,

I agree with you about signing Pavano but the big fear is MONEY. I wrote in my blog Pavano will want more money than the Twins are willing to spend. Hopefully, they find a way to bring him back because he is a valuable veteran. There is no way the Twins make a trade for a ace you are right.

Manager Ron Gardenhire was quoted as saying he told GM Bill Smith he would like Orlando Cabrera back next season to play second base and he could slide Punto over to third. It was quoted in Sid Hartman's column. What is the possibility of this happening and do think they bring back Crede until Valencia is ready?

Steve-No said...

It's encouraging to hear that Bill Smith wants to keep Pavano. If the Twins can retain him at a fair price, let's do it.

Anonymous said...

With the addition of Hardy, and the state of our OF D, might be wise to get a ground ball starter. Doug Davis/Pavano/Garland or more extreme Marquis/Pineiro.

anthony said...

Nick,
I have been a Twins fan since I was a child. I'm 52. I live in another state and watch almost all their games on TV. I read your blog. I enjoy the Hot Stove almost as much as the regular season. My problem is this: You make (some) arguments based on analysis of statistics I don't understand. I can't be the only one. What's "xFIP" and "BABIP." I know, with anything, those who do know will scoff at me for suggesting that you waste your time explaining the obvious to the ridiculously uninformed. But seriously. There must be a way to teach us non-metricized (?) fans, otherwise you do run the risk of sounding pompous. I don't think you sound pompous. I'm just saying the risk is there. And, if you look at the small sample of comments today, none of them mention the two statistics I just questioned. Could it be they skimmed over that part, or compared the numbers of different ballplayers that you presented, or that they actually read your analysis of said numbers. If so, the baseball analyist is getting a bit priestly, no? Thoughts?

anthony said...

At the end of my last comment I meant to say:

Could it be they skimmed over that part, or compared the numbers of different ballplayers that you presented (ie, without knowing what the numbers meant they still were able to see value in them but only by comparing this number to that number), or that they only read your analysis of the numbers (thus ignored the numbers and simply focusing on your analysis of them). If so, the baseball analyist is getting a bit priestly, no? Thoughts? Help?

Nick N. said...

Manager Ron Gardenhire was quoted as saying he told GM Bill Smith he would like Orlando Cabrera back next season to play second base and he could slide Punto over to third. It was quoted in Sid Hartman's column. What is the possibility of this happening and do think they bring back Crede until Valencia is ready?

I would say the odds of that happening are pretty slim. The manager doesn't make these roster decisions, and with good reason when he's making suggestions such as that. Bill Smith sounded resigned to letting Cabrera walk after the Hardy trade, and that's the right thing to do.

My problem is this: You make (some) arguments based on analysis of statistics I don't understand. I can't be the only one. What's "xFIP" and "BABIP." I know, with anything, those who do know will scoff at me for suggesting that you waste your time explaining the obvious to the ridiculously uninformed.

Apologies for the esoteric language. A big goal of mine is to make sure the content on this blog is accessible to everyone, and I usually try to offer a quick explanation of some of the advanced metrics or at least link to a glossary definition. Mea culpa.

In short, xFIP takes all factors out of the equation that are not directly under a pitcher's control, judging them based on strikeouts, walks and home runs allowed (with the HR rate being normalized) to give an idea of how their performance looked independent of the defense that played behind them. You can read a less jumbled definition here.

BABIP stands for Batting Average on Balls In Play. It's pretty self-explanatory, with the idea being that a high figure here indicates that the pitcher was somewhat unlucky (this stat is used for hitters, too, with the opposite conclusion being drawn from the results).

TT said...

"It's pretty self-explanatory, with the idea being that a high figure here indicates that the pitcher was somewhat unlucky (this stat is used for hitters, too, with the opposite conclusion being drawn from the results)."

Its also not really believable when you look at the spread of career numbers. The idea that neither hitters nor pitchers have insignificant control over how many batted balls go for hits is silly.

As for Pavano's status as a Type B free agent, when was the last time a Twins sandwich pick amounted to anything?

Here is the list:
Matt Bashore
Shooter Hunt
Henry Sanchez
Mathew Fox
Jay Rainville
Aaron Heilman (not signed)
Matt LeCroy
Travis Miller
Marcc Barcelo
Kelsey Mucker
Scott Stahoviak
Midre Cummings

Miller and LeCroy are the only two that really produced anything for the Twins. If the Twins can sign Pavano, losing the draft choice shouldn't be an issue.

It sounds like Pavano's agent wants to test the market. But that means the Twins can test it as well. If the choice was Washburn or Pavano, which would you choose?

Nick N. said...

Its also not really believable when you look at the spread of career numbers. The idea that neither hitters nor pitchers have insignificant control over how many batted balls go for hits is silly.

That simply isn't true. Year-to-year variation in BABIP numbers generally supports this idea.

If the choice was Washburn or Pavano, which would you choose?

Pavano, in a heartbeat. I'm not convinced Washburn will be significantly better than Perkins next year if Perkins is healthy.

anthony said...

You're a gentleman, Nick. I appreciate how you responded to my email quickly.

What I know about the Twins is about an image emblazoned in my brain: Punto over-rounding third in the third game against the Yankees, then his patented quick-slide and dash back to the base. It's funny how he dives headfirst into first base which is universally considered dumb and yet slides feet first when everyone else merely stops on their feet. He should be our utility guy, not starting at any position regularly. Yet...

Steve-No said...

"When was the last time a Twins sandwich pick amounted to anything?"

Well TT -- I don't know about all the guys on the list but Shooter Hunt is still developing. Yes, he had a terrible season this past summer, being demoted from Beloit but give the guy a chance.

He was only drafted last year. Even Johan Santana was 0-4 with a 7.93 ERA and 25 k's in 36.1 innings (nine games and five starts) in the Gulf Coast league.

Jewscott said...

"Twins' need for a dominating power pitcher at the top of the rotation. But solving that particular issue will be a lot more difficult than some seem to realize."

No one says it's going to be easy to find such a pitcher. That doesn't mean you don't have to try.

My problem with resigning Pavano is three fold A) He's every bit as injury prone as the Sheets, Bedard, Harden trio. B) He's not as good as that group when healthy. And C) He's worth a comp round pick, which is valuable if you're trying to restock the farm system.

TT has the right idea, but the wrong name in the equation. If it comes down to offering Harden 1 year at $10 million, Bedard 1 year at $7 million, Sheets 1 year at $7 million or Pavano 2 years at $12 million, which one do you do?

TT said...

"Year-to-year variation in BABIP numbers generally supports this idea."

Year-to year variations are irrelevant to the question.

"Shooter Hunt is still developing."

Hunt has Steve Blass disease. I don't know of anyone who has come back from that. But Hunt was just one guy on that list. I am not saying there is no chance of a supplemental pick turning out, just that the odds aren't all that good.

As for Washburn, I don't think the choice is all that clear. I was just grabbing a roughly equivalent pitcher whose name has been thrown around. The point is that once the free agents are free to negotiate everyone is going to be doing comparison shopping, not just the players.

"Harden 1 year at $10 million, Bedard 1 year at $7 million, Sheets 1 year at $7 million or Pavano 2 years at $12 million, which one do you do?"

I think Pavano, but that is because I don't buy that he is the same injury risk as a guy like Harden. In fact, I see Pavano's value as providing some certainty in a rotation that is filled with uncertainty.

CA said...

Year-to year variations are irrelevant to the question [of BABIP].

Actually, they're extremely relevant as evidence that pitchers have little control over balls in play. I suggest checking out this article for more information.

Washburn's BABIP this past season was .257, and Pavano's was .335. Neither of those figures are sustainable, especially when you consider that
Washburn got to that number by playing a good chunk of the year in Safeco Field in front of an outstanding Mariners defense. I'd say it's a very solid bet that Pavano is the better choice going forward.

TT said...

CA -

McCracken's "study" and conclusions have been almost totally discredited several times.

What some people were surprised by is that there is not a direct correlation between BABIP and a pitcher's effectiveness. Pitchers with high strikeouts can be successful even if they give up a lot of hits when batters make contact. But there are plenty of pitchers whose success depends on getting batters to put the ball in play in a way that gives their fielders a chance to turn it into an out.

And, if you read the article, McCracken simply assumes year to year differences are significant. He provides no evidence for it.

Even Bill James has admitted to misapplying year-over-year comparisons in arriving at conclusions. Season-to-season volatility, by itself, just doesn't tell us anything about the relationship of results to a player skills.

gotwins said...

Keeping Pavano is probably the best the Twins can actually get out there. I mean there are a few solid free agents but nothing to write home about. Even the "ace" that is available, John Lackey, is only considered the ace of the free agent market by default. There just isn't any solid talent out there.

And I wouldn't pin too much hope on Liriano making a solid comeback. At best I see him being the 4th or 5th starter, but more realistically he's coming out of the bullpen.

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