At the beginning of the 2004 season, you could have given me 30 or 40 chances to name the most coveted free agent starter on the upcoming market, and I’m still not sure I would have gotten around to mentioning Carl Pavano. A prized Red Sox prospect coming up through the farm system (he was the main player given up in the Pedro Martinez trade), he had never lived up to expectations. His performance record consisted of three and a half below average seasons in Montreal and a year and a half of league average production in Florida. In just over 700 career innings of work, he had posted a 4.59 ERA with peripheral stats that supported the assertion that he was an innings eater at best.
2004 saw him post an ERA of 3.00, 37 percent better than league average, and post an 18-8 record and a VORP of 64.4, fourth highest among major league starters. Seemingly out of nowhere, Pavano became a legitimate Cy Young contender, mixing both durability and excellence at the age or 28. What changed to cause him to go from back end starter to ace? Look at his ratios for the past three seasons:
H/9IP K/BB HR/9IP K/9IP 2002 1.28 2.04 1.25 6.09 2003 1.01 2.71 0.85 5.96 2004 0.95 2.84 0.65 5.63
His walk rate has remained fairly steady, but he’s been able to cut his hits and home runs allowed. Usually, this would be accompanied by a higher strikeout rate, but Pavano is actually missing less bats now than he was during his mediocre years. Peripherally, there is very little difference between his average 2003 and superb 2004 seasons. So what the heck happened?
Honestly, it was probably luck. Based on his peripherals and an average defensive support, he should have posted a 3.57 ERA; still solid, but a big step down from his actual performance. It appears that a good percentage of the steps forward he took this year aren’t repeatable talent, but more good fortune.
Pavano’s skillset is one that can succeed, but much like Brad Radke, whom we profiled earlier, he’s going to be prone to inconsistency. As a ball-in-play starter, he will be more susceptible to the ups and downs of random variation than a three true outcomes starter like Matt Clement. 2004 was the peak of what one could expect from Pavano, given his stuff and command. Whoever signs him will pay the premium value for a pitcher who cannot reasonably be expected to pitch any better than he did last year, and should be expected to return closer to performances matching his career lines.
In all the talk about Adrian Beltre’s breakout season (or fluke, depending on your point of view), Carl Pavano’s leap from mediocrity to stardom appears to have the least potential to continue. Pavano, while coming off a tremendous year, is going to price himself into a market that will almost certainly make him a bad investment. He’s a great player to avoid.