Can Pitch F/X Explain Carl Pavano’s Trash can Assault?


Yesterday, Carl Pavano finished up his outing against the Kansas City Royals by attacking a trash can with a baseball bat in the dugout. Pavano probably isn’t the only member of the Twins who’s felt inclined to take out his frustrations on an inanimate object this season as the Twins are sitting in the basement of the AL Central with a 9-18 record. It’s the American League’s worst record and they also own the worst run differential too having been outscored by sixty-four runs in just twenty-seven games.

Pavano shares some of that blame through his first six starts, after yesterday’s five and one-third inning appearance that saw him allow six earned runs on twelve hits while not striking out a single batter his ERA stands at 5.84 this morning. There is some assurance of better things to come for Pavano as both his FIP, 4.44, and xFIP, 4.81, are markedly lower than his ERA. Still none of the three marks are impressive or as good as the past two seasons in which Pavano had FIPs of 4.00 in 2009 and 4.02 in 2010 and xFIPs of 3.89 and 3.86, respectively the past two seasons.

What’s caused Pavano to go from being an effective, better than average, starter the past two years to one whom finishes his day with a stress relieving trash can assault? First off, it’s not his batting average on balls in play which is currently .279 and lower than both his BABIP from 2009 and 2010. But there is still concern with batted balls in 2011 for Pavano as his groundball rate has fallen from 2010’s 51.2 percent down to 43.9 percent this season. He’s gotten away with it so far as his line drive rate has been particularly low and all the extra flyballs haven’t hurt him in the home runs allowed department yet.

It’s tough to say Pavano’s gotten away with the low groundball rate when he has a 5.84 ERA but he has been unlucky in stranding base runners. He’s left just 53.9 percent of his base runners on the bases this year, compared to a career rate of 69.7 percent. It shouldn’t stay that low all season and Pavano doesn’t have much control over it either. Getting back to the BABIP, it could start moving upwards if he doesn’t get more groundballs soon. In 2009 he had an equally low groundball rate around 43 percent and had a .329 BABIP that season. His ERA was over five in that season as well.

It’s a troubling scenario for Pavano to be struggling with an inability to get out of putting runners on, having the expectation that it won’t be a problem all season but at the same time being aware he’s actually benefiting from a BABIP that could turn on him at any time. He’s not helping himself with any of that either as his strikeouts per nine innings has dropped this season and his walk rate has risen as well. Normally, walking 2.43 batters per nine innings would hardly be considered an issue, it’s a solidly below average rate, but Pavano had back to back seasons with a walk rate no higher than 1.76 in either 2009 or 2010.

What turns his still excellent walk rate into a concern is his 4.14 strikeouts per nine innings this year, below last year’s 4.76 and a ways away from 2009’s 6.64. As mentioned earlier his home run rate is still sitting around the league average but the utter lack of strikeouts, highlighted by not getting a single strikeout yesterday, puts more pressure on Pavano to get groundballs and stay away from walks. With a big help from Texas Leaguers and FanGraphs pitch f/x data we’ll examine Pavano’s troubles closer and look for possible trends this season that differ from his successful 2010 season.

The first slight issue that’s seen with Pavano in 2011 is a drop in his percentage of first pitch strikes. He’s started off batters with strike one 64.2 percent of the time this season, a small fall from last season’s 67.9 and 2009’s 67.7. As with his walk rate, it’s still above the league average of 58.9 percent but it’s a slip for Pavano. It’s a rather small percentage drop and it’s only six starts into the season but there’s a noticeable difference in his pitch selection on the first pitch this season.

Last season Pavano offered either a fastball or sinker on the first pitch 57.1 percent of the time and got a strike on the fastball 69.1 percent of the time and 67.4 percent of the time with the sinker. This season he’s turned to the two pitches just 42.6 percent of the time on the first pitch and has upped his use of his change-up and slider from 32.8 percent of his first pitches last year to 43.2 this year. Why Pavano hasn’t stuck to the old if it’s not broke, don’t fix it adage this season is perplexing. Both the slider and change have seen a drop in their first pitch strike percentage this season with more frequent use. It wouldn’t solve all his problems but turning back to his on-speed stuff more frequently to start a batter off looks like it would help.

Turning to Pavano’s strikeout issues, there’s also a drop in his swinging strike percentage to go with the falling strikeout rate. Pavano has a career swinging strike rate of 8.7 percent and had a 8.6 percent rate in 2009 and a 7.5 percent rate last season but it’s down to just 6.8 percent this season. Hitters are chasing Pavano’s out of the strike zone offerings much less this season than the past two and are having a go at his in zone offerings more often at the same time. After back to back seasons of hitters chasing out of the zone over thirty-two percent of the time hitters have done so just 26.9 percent of the time this season, falling below the league average of 28.1 percent.

The main culprit amongst Pavano’s arsenal is his slider. The whiff rate on his change-up is relatively unchanged and his fastball and sinker whiff rates are a bit lower but they were never high to begin with anyways. The slider however has had a big drop in effectiveness. In 2010, Pavano’s slider had a 10.6 whiff rate which was below the league average of 13.3 percent but it was the second best whiff rate amongst his four main pitches only trailing the change-up. This season he’s gotten a whiff on just 5.1 percent of his sliders and overall the pitch has gone for a strike only 54.4 percent of the time, down from 2010’s 66 percent strike rate.

It’s still early and velocity data becomes more reliable as the season moves on but the slider has taken a dip in velocity this season, down to an average of 82.4 mph from 83.6 mph in 2010. The slider also hasn’t dropped as much this season. The average vertical movement last year was 3.46 inches and this season it’s averaged 4.16 inches of vertical movement. The lower the vertical movement number, the lower the pitch. Looking at his slider’s movement charts none of his sliders have registered a negative vertical movement, while he appeared to do so occasionally last season. Again, it’s still early but it also looks like his slider was tighter last season and had less horizontal movement towards Pavano’s glove side of the plate.

The last issue for Pavano is the drop in his groundball rate and the resulting drop in his percentage of groundouts. Last season with his excellent 51.2 percent groundball rate, hitters facing Pavano ended their at-bat with a groundout 28.1 percent of the time. This season’s falling groundball rate has also seen the batters Pavano faces groundout only 23.3 percent of the time. Pavano’s sinker doesn’t seem to be all that different from last year as the velocity, vertical and horizontal movement, and location aren’t far off when comparing this year’s version to last years. It’s also winding up in play or called for a strike at more or less the same rates in 2011 as 2010.

But according to Joe Lefkowitz’s Pitch F/X site, Pavano has been getting less grounders on the sinker this year when compared to last despite the aspects of the pitch appearing similar. Maybe it’s just a matter of time for the sinker to start getting more grounders for Pavano. In the meantime it appears he can help himself out by turning back to the sinker and fastball combo on the first pitch that worked so well for him in 2010 and perhaps he should tinker with the slider a bit to try and replicate it’s movement from 2010 a little closer.