Friday, July 11, 2008

Paul Maholm: Pitching Well, Not an Ace

At some point every summer, this happens. Some Pirate pitcher starts cruising through start after start and the fans get really excited about how well said pitcher is throwing the ball and he gets declared the Pirates "ace," then everyone gets all disappointed and angry when said pitcher stops living up to artificially raised expectations. Don't do this with Paul Maholm.

He's recently been the only Pirate pitcher you can count on to go beyond the fifth inning regularly. Since May 31st, his shortest start was the six inning start he made against Baltimore on June 15th. He's got a 2.67 ERA in those games with a 1.03 WHIP. Most importantly, the Pirates are 5-3 in those eight starts (he's 4-0). Still, he's given up ten home runs in those eight starts, which is kind of high for a pitcher that's been on such a role. His strikeout rate isn't Zach Duke-bad, but it's not improved a whole lot over last year's. The same goes for his walk rate. The Hardball Times shows that while he's giving up fewer groundballs this year, he's actually allowing more line drives.

If you're wondering what gives, my guess is that the team's defensive efficiency rating (rate at which balls in play are turned into outs, stat also found at the THT link above) when he pitches is .714 this year, while the team as a whole has a DER of .684. Now, the DER behind Maholm has been better than the team's rating in the past, but it's generally a much less dramatic difference (.688 vs. .676 last year). As a result, his FIP (fielding independent pitching) is much higher than his ERA (4.41 vs. 3.93). The Pirates are a bad fielding team, but behind Maholm their DER would rank fourth best in the majors. Give all of the batted ball stuff (which I'm no expert on, but feel fairly confident in drawing this conclusion), this almost certainly has as much to do with good luck as it does to do with Maholm being better than the Pirates' other pitchers.

Please, do NOT misunderstand what I'm saying here. I don't think Maholm is a bad pitcher at all. I think he's made some huge strides in the past two years (his walks are WAY down from where they were in his ugly 2006 and that's a huge difference maker) and I think he's a very nice third starter. I'm not predicting a massive collapse in the second half or anything like that. The problem comes in mistaking a decent pitcher having a nice run of luck with a true ace. We've made this mistake a hundred times in the past, let's not do it again.