When the Twins acquired Carl Pavano in August of 2009, his fastball was averaging almost 91 miles per hour and he was striking out 16 percent of the batters he faced. In two seasons since, his velocity has dropped by two miles per hour and his K-rate has descended steadily, to 13 percent in 2010 and 11 percent in 2011.
Among qualifying major-league starters, only Brad Penny had a lower K/9 mark last year than Pavano's 4.1. A lack of whiffs isn't necessarily a death knell, especially when you can limit walks and homers, and Pavano's propensity for pitching to contact has helped him efficiently rack up 220 innings in consecutive years, but in order to succeed with this style a pitcher needs help from his defense and a certain measure of luck.
Last year Pavano didn't benefit much in those areas; nor did his staff mates, as the Twins finished with the worst defensive efficiency (converting batted balls into outs) in all of baseball. While the club's fielding is expected to improve this season, it would take a rather drastic turnaround for it to be considered a strength.
Pavano has been a fairly extreme ground ball pitcher in each of the past two years, so infield defense will likely be a key factor in his success. Around the diamond, the Twins will be relying on a third baseman who was repeatedly scolded for his passive defensive approach last year, a shortstop who's 38 and spent much of his career as a utility man, a mistake-prone second baseman with a reputation for losing focus, and a first baseman who's looked foggy in the field since being concussed.
In other words, if Pavano's strikeout rate continues to slide, it's a good bet that he'll once again rank among the most hittable pitchers in all of baseball. He may be able to overcome that and hold value as a serviceable innings eater, but it's not a label you want attached to your Opening Day starter and de facto No. 1.
The Twins have plenty of uncertainty in their 2012 rotation, so more than ever they'll be counting on Pavano -- whose 443 innings over the past two years lead all Twins pitchers by more than 100 -- to be that veteran rock. In order to to excel, it is essential that he take matters into his own hands and find a way to start missing a few more bats.