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Carl Pavano’s Second Act

A year and a half ago, Carl Pavano was baseball’s biggest punch line. Formerly a prized Red Sox prospect, Pavano was traded to Montreal in 1997 as part of a package for Pedro Martinez. He overcame early arm troubles that DL’d him three times from 1999 to 2001 to establish himself with the Marlins, whom he was traded to in July of 2002. Topping 200 innings in both 2003 and 2004, Pavano averaged 5.78 K/9, 2.08 BB/9, a 4.03 xFIP and 3.9 WAR a season. After the ’04 campaign, the Yankees came to terms with Pavano on a four-year, $39.95 million deal that will live in infamy.

Shoulder tendinitis. Bruised buttocks. Fractured ribs, suffered in a car accident and allegedly hidden from the club for a time. Tommy John surgery. Pavano threw all of 145.2 innings for the Bombers, contributing just 1.1 WAR while drawing the ire of fans and becoming tabloid fodder. When Pavano signed a one-year, $1.5 million deal with the Indians in January of 2009, with $5.3 million in performance bonuses, most snickered and wondered if he’d strain something while putting his John Hancock on the contract.

In Cleveland, something peculiar occurred: Pavano pitched as if the preceding four years never happened, morphing back into the strike-throwing machine who earned praise with the Marlins. His ERA with the Tribe (5.37) was ugly, but his xFIP (3.94) suggested he was performing as well as ever. Pavano continued his revival in Minnesota (3.99 xFIP) following an August trade. Overall, he had 6.64 K/9, 1.76 BB/9 and 3.7 WAR in 199.1 innings, with a big discrepancy between his ERA (5.10) and xFIP (3.96) due to a .335 batting average on balls in play and a low rate of stranding base runners (66.1 percent).

Pavano accepted arbitration this past off-season, and he’s earning $7 million in 2010. He’s well on his way to justifying that salary — with 1.5 WAR in 96.1 frames, the mustachioed 34-year-old has provided the Twins with about $6 million in value already. Pavano’s not missing as many bats this season (5.14 K/9), but he’s being even stingier with the walks (1.31 BB/9) and has increased his ground ball rate slightly (45.9% this year, 43.4% in ’09). His xFIP (4.03) is essentially the same as last season, though his ERA (3.64) is dramatically lower thanks to a .267 BABIP and a 73.4 percent strand rate.

Utilizing an 89-90 MPH fastball, a low-80’s slider and a low-80’s changeup, Pavano gets ahead in the count like few others — his first pitch strike percentage was 67.7 last year, and comes in at 66.2 percent in 2010 (the MLB average is about 58 percent). Among qualified MLB starters, only Cliff Lee, Carlos Silva, Roy Oswalt and Roy Halladay have a higher F-Strike% this season.

And, hitters have a tough time laying off his stuff off the plate. Pavano garnered swings on pitches outside of the strike zone 32.3 percent in 2009 (25.1 percent MLB average) and 36.4 percent this season (28.3 percent MLB average). The 2010 mark is tops among big league starters.

If Pavano reaches his modest rest-of-season ZiPS projection (a 4.30 FIP in just 77 innings), he would finish the year with around 2.5 WAR and would end up being a bargain for the Twins. Should he approach last year’s innings total with a FIP closer to his current level, he would again top the three win mark. After years of DL stints and derision from fans and analysts, Pavano is back to being a quality rotation cog on a playoff-caliber team.