Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Unexpected Redemption of Carl Pavano

I’ve always felt bad for Carl Pavano. His name, especially in New York, is a joke. He’s known as a failure, a guy who signs a big contract and does nothing to earn it. The Eddy Curry of the Yankees. “American Idle.” A loser.

Everybody, including his Yankee teammates eviscerated him in the press. They made fun of him, rolled their eyes and most of all, questioned his drive, felt he didn’t try to push past injuries, that he was a quitter. But, if that was so, why would he try to hide broken ribs from the team to go out and pitch? I always felt he got a raw deal.

It was bad luck, rather than a lack of drive, that damaged Carl Pavano’s career—in fact almost ended it. Well, at least for a while.

There’s no denying—either due to injury; not being able to get into a groove; or just plain stage fright—Pavano pitched awfully in New York. When he pitched. In 4 years, Pavano pitched a total of 145 innings, and racked up a 5.00 ERA—a disappointment to say the very least. Especially when you consider that he was coming off a year in Florida where he threw 222.1 IP and earned a 3.00 ERA. The Yankees, needing starting pitching, signed him for 4 years at just under 40 million dollars in the winter before the 2005 season.

And then the roof caved in.

Like a lot of National League pitchers coming to not only the AL but to the white-hot spotlight of Yankee Stadium, Pavano didn’t pitch well his first year as a Yankee. Actually, his first month was good, but by the end of his first year as a Yankee—which ended in early July due to right shoulder tendinitis—Pavano had been beaten up a bit and had earned a 4.77 ERA, not quite what the Yankees had in mind. That was his best season as a Yankee.

In 2006, Pavano didn’t pitch at all. First he badly bruised his buttocks (no joke) in spring training, and then broke his ribs in a car accident. The broken ribs, Pavano tried to hide from the Yankees. When they found out, the Yankees were “more than little disappointed.” In effect, that ended Pavano’s career in New York. The press and his own team were against him from that point forward.

In 2007, Joe Torre decided to let Pavano be the opening day starter against the Tampa Rays. He got shelled. His next start was much better. Unfortunately, it was his last one of 2007. A pain in his elbow became Tommy John surgery which shut him down for the year. Coming back from the surgery in late 2008, Pavano pitched exceptionally poorly and ended the season with a 5.77 ERA. Pavano was openly booed and mocked by fans and the media alike. His ego was crushed and his teammates had nothing but open scorn for him in the press.

Pavano got an incentive-laden contract with the Cleveland Indians. He didn’t reach the incentives—he pitched awfully in 21 starts. With a truly terrible Indian team around him, nothing rubbed off on Pavano—nothing positive anyway. It was obvious to anyone who watched him pitch in Cleveland that he was a shell of himself. He looked indecisive on the mound, and had none of his former talent at his fingertips. He tried to throw his fastball by people, except batters hit .298 off him, and righties hit .317. In his first start as an Indian, Pavano gave up 9 runs in one inning. Still a joke around baseball, Pavano ended up with a 5.77 ERA in Cleveland and was traded to the Twins for essentially a Twinkie and a nail file.

However...a funny thing happened in Minnesota. Dropped into the middle of a fierce pennant race on a very good team, Pavano began to pitch better. Not hugely better; he didn’t transform overnight, but he began to look more assured of himself. His first start as a Twin was against the rival Tigers. Pavano threw a 7-inning shutout. Next time up against the Tigers, with the Twins closing in on the AL Central leaders and needing a win, Pavano threw 7 innings and gave up only 2 runs for a win. Pavano ended the 2009 season on a bad 3-game stretch, but in the playoffs, against his old team, the Yankees, Pavano got a small measure of revenge. Pavano held the powerful Yankee lineup to just 2 runs in 7 innings, keeping it to a one run game, until the Yankees scored 2 in the 9th and put the game away. He held the most powerful offense in baseball to 5 hits and struck out 9.

Even if the Twins lost, personally for Pavano, it must have felt like a vindication. He showed on a national stage, his former team, who had badmouthed him publicly, that he could pitch. That he was more a victim of bad luck rather than a bad teammate.

This past off-season Pavano accepted arbitration from the Twins. And as of today, he is now, arguably, the ace of the Twin staff. With a 3.92 ERA and a WHIP of 1.145—lower than his banner year of 2004—Pavano has 7 wins, or 2 less than he had with his 4 years as a Yankee. Pavano is 3rd in the American league in BB/9 IP with 1.443. He has an outside chance of getting 20 wins for the first time in his career.

Yogi Berra famously said: “Baseball is 90% mental, the other half is physical.” He could have been describing Carl Pavano. The half of the game that was physical was Pavano’s problem with the Yankees; he couldn’t stay healthy. And with his physical half repeatedly injured, Pavano’s 90% mental part became flattened. In short, his injuries caused his mental lock. When his teammates lost faith in him, he lost faith in himself. And when he lost faith, he lost games.

In a way, Pavano is extremely lucky. There aren’t many athletes who, when broken and faithless, get a chance to redeem themselves. Pavano got his chance to face his former team in a playoff game, and when he got that chance, pitched to the level he was capable of. And in doing that, he was able to grab the touchstone of his former self. To repeat, not many athletes get that chance, and the few who do often crumble under the pressure. We’re seeing Dontrelle Willis go through the same thing right now. Utterly broken and given up by 2 teams, Dontrelle is trying to find what he once had before, but lost. Can he make his way back to the pitcher he once was?

Who knows? But the fact that Carl Pavano can go from The Worst Free Agent Signing in Yankee History and One of the Worst Free Agent Signings of All Time to a successful front-line start for a playoff bound team shows that it can be done. Redemption is possible.

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