Don’t Blame Paul Maholm

“When you get to the end, you start to think about the beginning.” – Brad Pitt from Mr. and Mrs. Smith

Rumors are starting to swirl that Paul Maholm is being eyed by playoff contending teams as an addition at the July 31st deadline.  He is attractive because not only is he relatively dependable, a legitimate middle of the rotation pitcher, but he is also relatively cheap both this year (pro-rated portion of his $4.5M 2010 contract), and two subsequent years (under contract in 2011 for $5.75M, and a team option for $9.75M in 2012).

If Maholm is traded, what will his legacy be as a Pirate?  It’s my contention that he is the best pitcher the Pirates have had in the new millennium.  Admittedly, that is damning him with faint praise.

Maholm debuted on August 30, 2005 against the Milwaukee Brewers and pitched 8 innings, allowing 4 hits, 0 runs, while giving up 3 walks and striking out 5.  It was a fantastic debut in the midst of Zach Duke’s unbelievable rookie season.  Those two, along with Kip Wells, Oliver Perez, and Ian Snell, gave the Pirates and their fans hope that the rotation would be top-flight for years to come.

But something happened on the way to glory.  Maholm became….average.  His career stats as of this writing are:

44-51, 4.29 ERA, 910 IP, 983 H (9.7 H/9), 310 BB (3.1 BB/9), 563 K (5.6 K/9)

While those numbers seem pedestrian at best, sub-standard at worst, consider the Pirates team as a whole during that August 30, 2005 to present time period.  The number in parentheses is Maholm’s ERA for that year.

2005 — 13-18, 4.24 ERA (2.18)

2006 — 67-95, 4.52 ERA (4.76)

2007 — 68-94, 4.93 ERA (5.02)

2008 — 67-95, 5.08 ERA (3.71)

2009 — 62-99, 4.59 ERA (4.44)

2010 — 34-60, 5.04 ERA (4.03)

Maholm has either been below (in 3 years, well below) or just slightly above the average team ERA.  The Pirates are a combined 140 games below .500 during Maholm’s tenure, yet he is only 7 games under .500 himself.  Maholm has pitched 13.3% of all the innings during this time period, so if you assume a linear amount of responsibility in terms of win-loss, he should theoretically be 18 games under the break-even line.

Maholm has also been dependable.  He has taken the ball between 29 and 31 times in each of his 4 full years in the rotation.  Maholm is not a head case like his contemporaries Ian Snell, Oliver Perez, and to a lesser extent Kip Wells.  While each of these 3 pitchers may have had greater single seasons, none of them can say with a straight face that they have had better, consistent careers than Maholm.

We think of players sometimes like machines.  Maholm should pitch 6-7 innings every night, with 3 earned runs, maybe 2 walks and 4 strikeouts.  But that’s not how life is.  There are days at your job that you simply don’t want to be there.  But at your job, I would hazard a guess that you don’t have the possibility of a projectile coming back at your face with a rebound speed of 90 mph.

Well, that happened to Maholm while he was in the minors.  A hot shot came right back to the pitcher’s mound and Maholm stopped it with his face.  It broke his orbital bone in the process and he missed significant time.  But it never affected his performance.  He never backed down or pitched scared.  He has the mentality to match the mascot of his alma mater Mississippi State….a bulldog.

The night of his debut, Hurricane Katrina ripped through Biloxi, Mississippi but spared Maholm’s house.  All Maholm did that night was debut and pitch the aforementioned 8 shutout innings.

I’m very torn about the prospect that we may be in the august days of Maholm’s Pirate career.  On one hand, he brings a stability to the rotation that we otherwise would not have in 2011.  His 89 mph fastball, 73 mph curveball, 82 mph changeup, and 82 mph slider may not intimidate his opponents or provide complete comfort to the fans watching, but he gets the job done.  He just knows how to pitch.  On the other hand, he has seen his rate stats decline every year since 2008.  The K/9 rate has gone from 6.1 to 4.5, while the BB/9 has gone from 2.7 to 3.2.  And, it bears mentioning with the cost-conscious Pirates, his salary is increasing as well.  Perhaps a team would be desperate enough to part with one of their team’s Top 10 prospects and another mid-level prospect.  Even if that were the case, a part of me would be sad and feel like Maholm would not be truly appreciated until he is gone in 2011.

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