22 August 2008

Carl Pavano's Injuries: Joe Torre's Fault?

The big news in Yankeeland is that Carl Pavano is slated to start the game tomorrow.

The big question, then, is:

Will he get out of the fourth inning?

Exactly three years and three months ago, 22 May 2005, Pavano was still looking good. Coming off an 18-win season he was signed to a 4-year, $39.95 Million contract in the off season. Pavano had made 10 starts at that point and was 4-2 with a 3.69 ERA, averaging just a hair over 6 innings per contest, and with 37 strikeouts to just 11 walks. The defense had been more than a bit sloppy behind him, leading to 13 unearned runs that helped mask the fact that he really hadn't been all that good, but the results were certainly acceptable, to that point.

And then the bottom fell out. After a decent start on the 22nd (7 IP, 3 R, 1 earned), the bottom fell out. Over the next month, Pavano went 0-4 in seven starts with a 6.46 ERA. The defense buckled down and so he didn't allow any unearned runs, but when you give up 56 hits in 39 innings, the opposition doesn't need your team to make errors.

And then he got hurt. And hurt. And hurt again. Pavano had a shoulder injury in 2005 that cost him the rest of the season, though oddly, he was not put on the DL until July 7th, a week and a half after his last start. In 2006, it was thought that he might be back, but a back injury landed him on the DL, and then two broken ribs from a car accident and a wrist injury kept him there. He pitched well, if sparsely, in the minors but not at all in the majors in 2006.

Last year was more of the same. After making two starts in April, and even winning one of them, he was back on the DL to stay, this time an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery. He's been working his way back to you, babe, with a burning love inside but hopefully not a burning sensation in his elbow.

Three years and three months ago, Pavano had just thrown the most pitches of his career, 133 of them on May 17th, 8 more than his previous career high, from September 2004. It was also 32 pitches more than his previous 2005 maximum and 47 more than the average over his first eight starts. Joe Torre wanted to get him that shutout, and dammit, he got it, but at what cost?

Pavano was new to the team, and it's likely that Torre was not that familiar with him or his history. He probably didn't know that Pavano had never thrown more than 125 pitches in a game before. he probably didn't know that Pavano had been worked pretty hard in 2004, at least in comparison to the past. He averaged 103 pitches per start in his walk year, as the Marlins knew they couldn't afford to re-sign him and wanted to get as much as they could out of his arm before he left.

And they did. Between mid-June and mid-September, he averaged 108 pitches per start, including nine times in which he threw at least 111. (His last two starts were each only about 75 pitches, as he was lifted for a pinch hitter in a 0-0 game in his penultimate start and then relieved after the 7th inning of a 9-1 blowout in his last start of the year.) Pavano's performance after high-pitch count outings had been a mixed bag - some good, some really, really bad - but this much is clear: He'd never been stretched that far.

Whether all of this is, therefore, Joe Torre's fault is debatable, but impossible to prove. Lots of pitchers have thrown 133 pitches in a game with no apparent ill effects, though probably a lot more of them have gone down after such abuse. Pavano may have been the one who insisted on staying in to get the shutout, but of course it's the manager's job to look to the future of the team and override the pitcher's whims, and Torre did not do that.

This much, however, is clear: Since June of 2005, Pavano has made exactly three starts above AA ball. Seventeen innings, none of them this year. In 2008 he's got only 19 innings: 5 in Single-A, and the rest at AA Trenton, where he's 1-1 with a 3.86 ERA. More important, he's allowed three homers in 14 innings. Two of them were hit by Sebastien Boucher, the Bowie Baysox center fielder, who was demoted from AAA earlier in the season, and who has a career minor league slugging percentage of .373. The other was hit by journeyman catch-and-throw guy John Suomi, who slightly improved his .398 career slugging percentage with that dinger.

So he's allowing too many homers, and worse yet, he's allowing them to guys who generally don't hit homers, and certainly shouldn't be hitting them off a seasoned major leaguer making $10 million per year. This is not a good sign.

So I ask again: Will he get out of the 4th inning?

You tell me.

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