Paul Maholm: Reassurance and Caution - Mostly Caution

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Paul Maholm: Reassurance and Caution – Mostly Caution

Chicago Cubs

Paul Maholm’s first start of the year was a rough one. Last night, he couldn’t command his pitches, and couldn’t get out of the first inning before he’d given up five runs.

But you know as well as I do that a player cannot be judged on one game, a pitcher on one start. Especially if there’s an explanation for that game.

Maholm didn’t offer one for his rough outing, probably not wanting to seem like he was making excuses after his first start in Chicago. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the cold – Brewers reliever Francisco Rodriguez said it was the coldest game, when considering the wind, that he’d ever pitched in – was affecting Maholm’s grip. Pitching in Chicago, especially straight after coming from Mesa, Arizona, can be a rough adjustment.

Then again, Maholm spent his entire career in Pittsburgh, where the average high and low temperatures in April – 62 degrees and 40 degrees – are pretty similar to Chicago (59 degrees and 40 degrees). So, shouldn’t he be well-adjusted to the cold by now?

Well, here’s where I can offer you a small amount of reassurance: April has always been a tougher month for Maholm. His career ERA in April (and March) is 4.46, his second worst month behind August. So, maybe it’s to be expected that he’ll struggle a bit early in the cold before turning it on in the Summer.

Then again, his overall career ERA is 4.39, so it’s not as if his April numbers are that far off for him. As I said, it’s only a small amount of reassurance. I think the fact that last night was just one start is going to have to carry the weight of your reassurance today.

And that’s particularly true after you dig into Maholm’s advanced stats from last year.

In 2011, a season Maholm ended on the shelf with shoulder problems, was, at first glance, his best season in a long time. He sported a 3.66 ERA and a 1.294 WHIP, both excellent figures. His WHIP had been better just once before in his career (2008), but his ERA had never been better in a full season. His strikeouts were in line with where they’d been historically, and he walked slightly fewer batters than usual (2.8 per 9, versus a career 3.0 mark). He turned 29 last year, and, as a soft-tossing lefty, it was a conceivable narrative that he was just starting his peak years. Perhaps the Cubs really had gotten a bargain when they signed Maholm to a one-year, $4.75 million deal with a $6.5 million club option for 2013 (or a $500K buyout).

But, wait a minute. Other teams aren’t stupid, and they’re always looking for starting pitching. Based on that narrative, and those numbers, there’s no way the Cubs should have gotten Maholm so cheaply. If it wasn’t the shoulder injury (and his quick return suggests it wasn’t), why did other teams pass on a cheap, effective lefty starting pitcher in his prime?

It could be that the numbers behind the numbers suggest Maholm’s 2011 season wasn’t as good as it looked, and, before 2011, suggest Maholm could actually be regressing, not improving, as he ages.

Taking a look at Maholm’s advanced statistics, a number of things jump out at me about 2011, none of them particularly encouraging. First, Maholm’s FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching – a stat that approximates an ERA-like figure, but attempts to remove the “help” that a pitcher received from his defense) and his xFIP (Expected Fielding Independent Pitching, which is like FIP but removes the luck associated with home runs from the equation) were both worse than his ERA. Maholm’s FIP was 3.78 and his xFIP was 4.03, both higher than his 3.66 ERA. That suggests he was lucky and/or helped by a quality defense last year. That suggestion is confirmed by Maholm’s unusually low BABIP last year – on balls in play, batters hit just .286 off of Maholm last year, far below his career .309 mark.

Maybe Maholm just really got his ground ball on last year, which led to fewer hits? Not so. In fact, Maholm’s 49.9% ground ball rate last year was the lowest of his career. Indeed, Maholm’s ground ball rate has dropped each of the last four seasons after a career-best mark in 2008 (53.6%). For a guy who doesn’t get a lot of strikeouts, that’s a troubling trend.

And then there are the home runs. A big part of the reason Maholm’s ERA was so low last year was because he gave up so few home runs – just 0.61 HR/9. Maybe Maholm just got better at not giving up home runs? Eh. I doubt it. While Maholm’s HR/FB percentage (the percentage of fly balls given up that result in a home run) has been consistently extremely low the last three seasons (between 7.3 and 7.7%), those three years come on the heels of three straight years where his HR/FB percentage was awful (between 12.1 and 12.8%). Neither extreme tends to be sustainable, and, if Maholm settles in around league average this year, he’s going to give up quite a few more home runs (as we saw last night).

One final bit cutting against the quality of Maholm’s 2011 season: he stranded a whole lot of runners. Maholm’s left on base percentage rose dramatically in 2011 to 72.1%, after being just 64.8% and 69.2% in the preceding two seasons. His 72.1% mark from 2011 was better than league average, and the figure tends to regress to average. In other words, Maholm is likely not to strand quite as many runners this year as he did last year.

All in all, the sabermetric story on Maholm is not a particularly reassuring one. His 2011 was still good by a number of measures, but expecting a repeat of his 3.66 ERA and 1.294 WHIP this year is probably unreasonable. Too much of his success, according to the numbers, was the product of a fluke.

For now, let’s just hope that Maholm’s start last night’s was more of a fluke than his 2011 season.

Author: Brett Taylor

Brett Taylor is the Editor and Lead Cubs Writer at Bleacher Nation, and you can find him on Twitter at @BleacherNation and @Brett_A_Taylor.