An EvenLee Match for the Texas Lefty?
Cliff Lee pitched another great game last night. He has rightfully received a lot of accolades for his pitching prowess this year and was the prize target when the Seattle Mariners were auctioning him off to the highest bidders earlier this month.
Let's face it, Lee is having a pretty good season, no?
Oops, that game log actually belongs to Carl Pavano. Yes, the pitcher no Yankees fan likes. Boston fans adore him because New Yorkers don't, as well as the fact that he brought them Pedro Martinez in a trade with the Montreal Expos in November 1997. I'm sure the Minnesota faithful is appreciative, too. You see, the 34-year-old righthander is 12-6 with a 3.26 ERA this year. After last night's victory, he has now won his last seven decisions, including four complete games and two shutouts.
Pavano leads the American League in shutouts (2) and ranks second in wins (12), complete games (5), BB/9 (1.19), and WHIP (1.01); third in innings (143.2); fifth in K/BB (4.26); 11th in W-L % (.667); and 12th in ERA (3.26).
How is Pavano putting up such heady stats? In a nutshell, there are two major reasons for his success.
1. Pavano ranks first in the AL in O-Swing% (the percentage of pitches a batter swings at outside the strike zone) at 36.1%. The league average is 28.8%.
2. Pavano ranks second in F-Strike% (first pitch strike percentage) at 68.3%. The league average is 58.8%.
The comparison to Lee is appropriate in that the 2008 AL Cy Young Award winner is fourth in O-Swing% (33.7%) and first in F-Strike% (70.2%).
The bottom line is that pitchers who get ahead in the count, widen the strike zone, and get batters to swing at their pitches are usually successful. In addition to Pavano and Lee, there are three pitchers who also rank in the top 10 in MLB in both of these categories: Scott Baker (35.3%, 65.4%), Dan Haren (36.3%, 66.9%), and Phil Hughes (33.6%, 65.7%). Roy Halladay (32.0%, 67.9%) and Ricky Nolasco (32.7%, 64.8%) are among the top 15 in O-Swing% and F-Strike%.
I would take those seven pitchers on my team. Don't be misled by Baker's 5.15 ERA. His Fielding Independent Pitching ERA is 4.00. The difference between his ERA and FIP is 1.15, which is the fourth-highest in the majors. Only Brandon Morrow (1.40), Francisco Liriano (1.36), and Justin Masterson (1.27) have bigger deltas. Unlike Baker (whose success is based on his strong K and BB rates), the latter three are benefiting from their low HR/9 rates with Liriano at a league-leading 0.15 (2 HR in 122 IP).
As it relates to Pavano, his .255 BABIP and 74.4% LOB are significantly better than his career averages of .306 and 69.9%, respectively, which may suggest that he could be prone for reversion to the mean over the balance of the season. However, I am not nearly as pessimistic as ZIPS (Szymborski Projection System), which forecasts Pavano to go 3-5 with a 4.88 ERA from here on out.
With outstanding control and three plus pitches (fastball, slider, and changeup) in terms of run value, Pavano should continue to have his way with hitters, albeit at a pace perhaps closer to his FIP (3.85) or xFIP (3.88) than his ERA (3.26). Working on a one-year deal for $7 million, the 12-year veteran has been a bargain for the Minnesota Twins.
A free agent at the end of the year, don't be surprised if Pavano signs a new contract that pays him more per season than the one he inked with the Yankees (4/$39.95M) in December 2004. Just don't look for him to return to the Big Apple unless, of course, it's to face the Bronx Bombers in the postseason in October.
[Thanks to ESPN for the game log and Fangraphs for the stats and rankings.]