LEFT HANDED PITCHER
|Born: June 25, 1982
Height: 6′ 2″
Drafted: 1st Round, 8th Overall, 2003
How Acquired: Draft
College: Mississippi State University
Agent: Bo McKinnis
WTM’S PIRATE PLAYER PROFILES
|The Bucs took Maholm with the 8th pick in the 2003 draft. In his junior season in college, he went 9-2, 2.76, allowing 102 hits and 39 walks, and striking out 101 in 107.2 IP. Maholm and Bryan Bullington were products of the Pirates’ preference, at the time, for using their first round picks on “safe” choices who were expected to reach the majors soon, specifically college pitchers. Of course, Maholm turned out a lot better than Bullington. He’s not overpowering. His strength is good command of the standard four pitches, all of which are more or less average. His fastball averaged between 89-90 for most of his career, but it dropped to a little over 88 in 2010 and dropped by about one mph more in 2011. Maholm has a good move and is difficult to run on. Despite the fact that the Pirates haven’t usually had good catching for most of his career, base stealers have managed only a 62% success rate against him. After he picked off eight runners in his second season, opponents stopped running much on him, averaging only about one attempt every other start. He doesn’t field his position very well and can’t hit at all.
Defense is critical to Maholm’s performance. Throughout most of his career, Pirates have ranked at or near the bottom of the majors in defensive efficiency. For a groundball pitcher with a low K rate, that can create problems. As evidence, there’s the fact that his Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP, expressed as ERA) has often been much lower than his ERA, showing that his defense is hurting him. He’s had a large platoon split over his career, with left-handed batters posting an OPS against him of only .593, compared to .807 by right-handed batters. He’s been a strong groundball pitcher, with a ratio of groundballs to flyballs generally between 1.70 and 1.80. He’s been much better at home, going 35-31, 3.80 at PNC Park, always considered a good park for left-handed groundball pitchers. Everywhere else he’s gone 18-42, 5.03. He’s been very durable, missing only a couple of starts and never going on the disabled list until 2011.
Pitched effectively in his debut at Williamsport. Baseball America chose him as the league’s 14th best prospect. Interestingly, NY-P League managers and scouts had a higher opinion of second round pick Tom Gorzelanny than of Maholm.
Maholm skipped a level and went to Lynchburg and pitched well through eight starts, except that his K rate dropped sharply. Unfortunately, he suffered a serious injury when hit in the face by a line drive. The blow fractured the bones around his eye, requiring surgery. He tried to returned in August at Hickory, but struggled badly due to double vision and needed a second facial surgery.
Maholm erased any concerns about his health by impressing the Pirates in training camp, enough so that they assigned him to Altoona, instead of Lynchburg as originally expected. He pitched well there in 16 starts, with a significantly improved K rate. That won him a promotion to Indianapolis, where he made six starts, his last ones in the minors as of the end of 2011. At the end of August, the Pirates brought him up and he made six major league starts. He did very well in all but one and twice allowed no runs and just four hits over eight innings. Opponents hit just 209/304/304 against him in the majors.
Spent the season in Pirates’ rotation and mostly struggled, allowing large numbers of baserunners. Of the 83 MLB pitchers who qualified for the ERA title, Maholm had the second worst WHIP and the second worst opponents’ OBP (.378).
Maholm struggled early in the season. Three weeks into May, his ERA was 5.82. From then until the end of August, however, it was 3.69. He had to be shut down at the beginning of September due to back problems. He came back late in the month to pitch two games, with disastrous results: 16 earned runs in just 4.2 IP. It’s hard to believe he was healthy and hard not to wonder why the Pirates didn’t just shut him down. It’s also puzzling why then-manager Jim Tracy left him in to give up 21 hits. Tracy also recklessly allowed Gorzelanny to far exceed his previous high workload for a season in a fruitless effort to reach 15 wins. The misadventure with Maholm had the unhappy effect of ballooning his ERA from 4.32 to 5.02, making it look like he regressed in 2007 when in fact he improved. His WHIP, while still not good, dropped by 12% even with the awful last two games. This was entirely due to the large drop in his walk rate.
Took a large step forward in 2008, becoming the ace of a horrible pitching staff. The improvement began in late May. He had an ERA of 5.11 going into his last start of the month. From that point on his ERA was 3.11. As the year went along, Maholm became more and more of a groundball machine: his groundout to air out ratio was 1.33 before the All-Star break and 3.10 after. The Pirates credited the improvement partly to outstanding conditioning. Some luck probably also played a role. His batting average on balls in play (BABIP) was about 20 points below his career norm. He had a career best WHIP and K rate.
Shortly before spring training, the Pirates signed Maholm to a three-year contract with a team option for a fourth year, which would allow the team to buy out his first free agency year. He was the opening day starter and had an ERA of 3.61 after his second June start, then had a stretch running from mid-June to mid-August in which his ERA was 6.58 over eleven starts. He had a 2.89 ERA over his final seven starts. He had minor knee and groin problems during the season, but denied that they affected his pitching. Ironically, for the first four months, Pirates fielded a dramatically improved defense, one that showed up among baseball’s best in metrics like defensive efficiency. After many veteran-for-prospect trades at the trade deadline, the defense fell off badly. For the season, Maholm’s BABIP increased from .290 in 2008 to .325. He cut his gopher ball rate by almost a third from the previous year and his control remained very good, but his K rate also dropped. His FIP of 3.82 probably indicates that he was in fact hurt by his defense.
Maholm’s fortunes went south with rest of team’s. He pitched fairly well during first three months, going 5-6, 3.98, but the wheels came off in the second half as he went 4-9, 6.28. Ironically, those last three months included one of the best games of his career, a 3-hit shutout in Houston, but also included six games in which he gave up either seven or eight runs. The downgraded defense, probably the worst in MLB, played a big role: Maholm’s FIP was nearly a full run lower than his ERA, at 4.18. His opponents’ BA of .303 was exceeded, among pitchers who qualified for ERA title, only by teammate Zach Duke. Right-handed batters hammered Maholm for a 316/372/470 line.
Maholm had the second best year of his career, although it didn’t show up in his W/L record. In his 26 starts, the Pirates scored two runs five times, one run six times, and got shut out three times. They averaged 2.9 runs per game and scored more than four just three times. The team’s dramatically improved defense undoubtedly played a big role in Maholm’s turnaround, as his FIP was actually higher than his ERA at 3.78. Another factor may have been Clint Hurdle sharing the Texas Rangers’ scouting report on Maholm with the pitcher. Maholm reportedly was not flattered by the report’s conclusions about his willingness to pitch inside and began doing so more often. He missed the last five weeks with shoulder soreness–his first-ever DL stint–but surgery was never considered and he’s expected to be healthy for spring training.
Maholm has been more valuable to the Pirates than his 53-73, 4.36 career line indicates. Nevertheless, the team stated publicly during the playoffs that they would not exercise his $9.75M option unless it was done as part of a trade. Unable to trade him, they officially declined his option on Halloween. Their decision was difficult to fathom. Maholm’s option is very close to the salaries of similar pitchers and thus closely represents his market value. The team figure to go into 2012 with three very high-risk pitchers in the rotation in Jeff Karstens, Charlie Morton and James McDonald, with the risk all the more heightened by Morton having major hip surgery. In an especially disturbing irony, the remaining incumbent pitcher, Kevin Correia, proved to be a replacement level pitcher, yet while the team intends to let their most reliable starter walk, Correia is considered a lock for the 2012 rotation. In addition, none of their upper-level pitching prospects gave any indication in 2011 that he was close to being ready to replace Maholm. Since the decision to let Maholm go shows that the team is unwilling to pay market value for a pitcher, they have little chance of replacing him with a pitcher of similar ability through free agency. They’re unlikely to do it through trade, either, because any veteran pitcher of similar ability will likely already have a contract at close to the same amount, and any with a below-market contract is unlikely to be available through trade. By far the most likely replacement will be another replacement level starter like Correia or a prospect who’s not yet ready. Either way, the decision is nearly guaranteed to lead to a downgrade of the rotation.
3 years/$14.5 M plus 2012 club option (signed January 2009, avoided arbitration)
2012: $9,750,000 club option ($750,000 buyout)
|Signing Bonus: $2,200,000
MiLB Debut: 2003
MLB Debut: 8/30/2005
MLB FA Eligible: 2013
Added to 40-Man: 8/27/2005
Options Remaining: 3
MLB Service Time: 6.037
|June 3, 2003: Drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1st round, 8th overall pick; signed on July 9.
August 27, 2005: Contract purchased by the Pittsburgh Pirates.
October 31, 2011: Filed for free agency.