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What the Indians starters do well (Part 2)

Following up on part 1 of this series, I am going to look at the three guys I think going into spring training are most likely to join Fausto and Lee in the rotation on April 1; Carl Pavano, Anthony Reyes and Aaron Laffey.  These guys aren’t as easy to look at because they don’t do as many obvious good things and either because of injury (Pavano), youth (Laffey) or both (Reyes) there are not as much major league data to look at for them.

I honestly don’t know what to say about Carl Pavano.  Between 1999 and 2004 he varied between being an average to a pretty solid starter.  His success during those years correlated pretty strongly with his walk rates, which varied from a solid 1.98 BB/9 in his best season (2004, 3.54 FIP) to a not so good 3.38 in his worst season (2001, 4.76 FIP).  Pavano wasn’t either an extreme GB-pitcher or an extreme FB-pitcher, but his HR numbers varied pretty dramatically. 

Since 2004 what Pavano has done well is not pitch.  In 2005 he pitched 100 innings for the Yankees which weren’t great, but were also pretty unlucky in terms of the number of HRs he gave up (15% of his fly balls, which is an atypically high number).  Since then he really hasn’t pitched so it is very difficult to have any sense of what to expect.  With what little data we do have from 2005, 2007 and 2008, we can see that when he came back with the Yankees last season his velocity was down on all of his pitches (fastball, slider, change) 2-3 mph. 

Not being able to say what Pavano has done particularly well makes it hard to identify whether or not he’s doing what he needs to be doing to succeed.  I was not a fan of his signing when it happened because I was afraid he would take starts from better pitchers.  I’m still afraid of that.  My fear is that Pavano will look ambiguously mediocre – putting together a few decent starts in a set of otherwise replacement level appearances – and will linger in the rotation through June.  I hope that I’m wrong, either because he shows the ability to get guys out consistently or because he’s not given the chance to steal starts from better pitchers.  I also have some confidence the Indians wouldn’t have made this signing if they didn’t have scouting reports suggesting there is some potential for quality stuff from Pavano.  We’ll see.

The data on Reyes also isn’t super because of limited major-league exposure the past two years, but…Reyes looked like a different pitcher last year than the year before, throwing harder and inducing more contact.  Pitching out of the bullpen in St. Louis his fastball was sitting just over 92.  In Cleveland it was 90-91.  In 2007 it was sitting in the upper 80s.  According to Josh Kalk’s pitch f/x data he was throwing 93 last season.  His secondary stuff, based on both sets of data, was about 3mph faster than 2007.  He switched from a pretty dramatic fly-ball pitcher with serious HR problems, to a moderate GB pitcher with a much more friendly HR-rate.  As a result of all this he was more successful than any previous extended stretch in the majors (his cup of coffee in 2005 was better, but very brief).  However he did so with his worst K-rate at any level over the previous four years.

In theory, Reyes 3-pitch combination gives him an interesting set of options, in that he has two pitches with very similar break (fastball and change) but dramatically different speeds (low 90s, upper 70s), and two pitches with similar speed (curve and change) but very different breaks.  Coming through the minors he became a top pitching prospect by putting up good K-rates (8+/game), good walk rates, and despite being a fly-ball pitcher, not allowing many HRs (<1/9IP).  Last year he was a low K, high GB pitcher, and seemed to have some success at that.  I don’t know which version will show up in Cleveland for 2009.  If he doesn’t do either, that’s probably a bad sign.  There’s not a lot of evidence his increased velocity was helping him last season, but his velocity will be another interesting thing to keep track of as the early season progresses.

Aaron Laffey had a great 2007 season, culminating in an impressive 9 start debut in Cleveland with a 3.73 FIP.  Laffey’s success is simple – getting more than 60% of balls in play on the ground, more than 3x as many ground balls as fly balls, 2 HRs allowed in 50 innings.  Laffey’s approach is different than that of Fausto, though.  Laffey works off a more traditional sinker (86-90 mph) and uses his slider (19%) and changeup (15%) with a greater frequency than any of Fausto’s secondary pitches.

If Laffey’s getting tons of groundballs, things are probably going well.  But how successful he becomes is in part going to be affected by his ability to keep the ball out of play completely.  His slider is actually his best strike pitch, despite not being consistent for Laffey.  Looking at his pitch f/x data (see below) you can see that the cloud of points for his slider is pretty broad and quite a few of his sliders fail to break (the cloud drifts towards the 0/0 point on the chart – and actually his sinker can do this too).  These aren’t great pitches.  I think if Laffey can tighten up both his sinker and slider, more consistently “sink” his fastball and more consistently get a good break on his slider, I think we’ll see his K-numbers go up.  If Laffey’s striking guys out and inducing a GB-rate near 60, he should be very solid.