Pavano, and the possibility of trading strikeouts for ground balls
24 Jan 2011 by sirsean
There are a few reasons to be concerned about giving Carl Pavano a multi-year contract -- among them his age, injury history, and low rate of striking people out -- but this article over at Fangraphs makes me wonder if there's hope that Pavano could reverse his recent trend toward contact inducement. The article points out that while Pavano's strikeout rate is dangerously low and getting lower, the decline in strikeouts was met by a corresponding jump in groundballs.
Almost across the board his pitches have higher GB% and lower whiff (swinging-strike) rates. The only exception is his four-seam fastball had slightly higher whiffs in 2010. Swinging strikes and ground balls generally trade off, but it is interesting to see to play out so clearly for one player from year to year.
The difference is the most striking with Pavano’s slider which went from 37.5% GBs in 2009 to 59.2% in 2010, accompanied by a decrease in whiff rate (per pitch) from 12% to 10%. It looks to me that this was caused by location in the strike zone.
One of the tenets of modern baseball analysis is that pitchers have very little control over balls in play -- that's why most people were so sure that Pavano's 5.10 ERA in 2009 would drop significantly once his .329 BABIP dropped. Sure enough, in 2010 his BABIP was only .281 and his ERA went down to 3.75 despite shockingly identical FIP (4.00 vs 4.02) and xFIP (3.96 vs 4.01).
My question is, was his improvement from 2009 to 2010 merely a coincidence, or did he have some control over the decline in BABIP? Chiefly, he knew coming into 2010 that he'd have a significantly improved infield defense behind him, with Orlando Hudson and JJ Hardy manning the middle infield. Did Pavano consciously trade swings-and-misses for weak-contact-inducement?
As with most of my musing, there's no way to know Pavano's intentions. But there are a few ways to look at the Pavano prism moving forward. One way is to assume that he didn't actively try to shape his K/9 vs GB%, that his skills are declining as he ages, and he was fortunate enough to run into a 50-point drop in BABIP that made people think he's a top-of-the-rotation workhorse. If that's what you think, you're probably terrified about what's going to happen to him as the middle infield behind him switches from the excellent Hardy/Hudson combo to the giant question mark that is Casilla/Nishioka.
On the other hand, if you think he tried to trade strikeouts for ground balls in 2010, then presumably you think he could reverse that trend in 2011 if he saw a need to. And given that giant question mark behind him in the infield, maybe he'll see a need to trade ground balls back into strikeouts.
The important thing for the Twins is that Pavano stays healthy enough to throw 200 innings at a Scott-Baker-like 4.00 FIP/xFIP. How he gets there isn't crucial to the bottom line, but I think it could be an interesting thing to watch.
So as the 2011 season progresses, I'll be watching Pavano's BABIP but perhaps even more tellingly, his K/9 and GB%. If his K/9 stays around 4 and his GB% stays above 50%, then he hasn't been able to adjust back to his previous ways (whether he tried to or not).
Tell me in the comments, what are your thoughts? Do you think Pavano tried to make the strikeouts-for-grounders trade? Would such a trade be possible? Was it a good idea in 2010, and would it be a good idea to trade back in 2011?
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