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Should Paul Maholm be an option?

With many options now off the table, if the Yankees want to sign or trade for a starting pitcher, they won’t likely be able to find one of a “number-two” caliber. Therefore, it may be time to look at some of the lesser, cheaper alternatives that are out there. Let’s take a look at lefty free agent, Paul Maholm.

Drafted in the first round (8th overall), Maholm has spent his entire career with the Pirates, where he has always been a fairly average pitcher. In 2011, however, the 30 year old turned it around and had a very good season, despite the 6-14 record (the product of being on a poor offensive team). The Pirates decided to decline Maholm’s $9.75MM club option, and he is now one of the remaining free agents.

Maholm owns a 4.36 / 4.21 / 4.22 line for his career, though he boasted a much improved 3.66 / 3.78 / 4.03 in 2011. His increased success in 2011 could be that of a career year, but it could also be the work of an adjustment he made with manager Clint Hurdle during the 2010-2011 offseason. Unlike in previous years, Maholm started to pitch to hitters much more aggressively on the inside third of the plate. The benefit of pitching inside more can be seen clearly through looking at his Batting Average Against (BAA). In 2009 and 2010, Maholm’s BAA was .287 and .296 respectively, whereas in 2011, it dropped substantially to .254. Dominating the inside part of the plate generally translates into less solid contact, which makes it seem likely that Maholm’s improved 2011 campaign isn’t a fluke.

One thing that is great about Maholm’s game is that he is a pitcher of control and ground-balls (52.3 career GB%; BB/9 usually in the upper 2’s). Now don’t get me wrong, ground-balls are great to have at Yankee Stadium. However, Maholm doesn’t strike anyone out (5.55 career K/9). This means that if he is in a high leverage situation with multiple runners on base (say runners on 2nd and 3rd), he can’t rely on getting a strikeout. Instead, he would have to rely on getting a ground-ball, which would entail a higher probability of run(s) scoring. In summation, ground-balls are great, but they lose a lot of their appeal when the pitcher can’t get strikeouts – which is Paul Maholm’s case.

You also have to take into consideration the transition from the weak NL Central, to the tough pressure-cooker that is the AL East. It’s not like Maholm is able to overpower hitters even in the NL Central, as he held only a measly 13.1 Swing-and-Miss percentage in 2011. That doesn’t figure to get any better pitching against offenses such as the Red Sox on a fairly regular basis. He is the quintessential soft-tosser, with a 86-89 mph fastball, a low 80s slider and change-up, and a low 70s looping curve. As Freddy Garcia showed last year, a 86-89 mph fastball can certainly get the job done. Freddy really mixed his pitches up masterfully, throwing his fastball only 36% of the time. What concerns me is that Maholm uses his fastball over 50% of the time. He’ll struggle in the AL East throwing a 87 mph fastball 50-55% of the time.

Additionally, Maholm has a huge platoon split- vs. Righties: .297 / .357 / .449; vs. Lefties: .216 / .285 / .309. To me, that implies that Maholm’s secondary pitches are either just as weak as his fastball, or he doesn’t use them as effectively as he could. A four-pitch pitcher should not have such horrendous numbers against righties and have such success against lefties.

Overall, Paul Maholm is not really a great match for the Yankees’ needs. I just don’t think a soft-tosser who doesn’t strike anyone out translates well into the AL East, or even the American League in general, though there are always exceptions. One more thing to note: Maholm’s number of innings has steadily declined since 2008, in addition to a shoulder strain at the back end of 2011.

Tim Dierkes of MLBTR said he should be able to get a 2 year deal for around $12MM. If that’s the case, I’d happily take Hiroki Kuroda or Roy Oswalt over Maholm.