February 10, 2010

I Sponsored His Baseball Reference Page For A Reason

PITTSBURGH, Pa. / February 10, 2010

While most of the national recognition goes to the #1 ace power pitchers, the Randy Johnsons and now the Tim Lincecums, quite another type of pitcher has long since stolen my heart. That is, of course, the four-pitch, pitch to contact, classic #3 starter.

My favorite season in baseball history has to be Carlos Silva's 2005. Although he's imploded since then, his 2005 was a year of beauty. Despite allowing more than 10 hits and one home run per nine innings, Silva went 9-8, 3.44 that year. He did so by allowing 9 walks all year. Nine walks in 188 innings. And two were intentional.

In addition to a lack of walks, the other stat I like for a starting pitcher is innings pitched. When you watch pitcher usage throughout a year, it comes up once every week or so that a bullpen needs a day off. They need a starting pitcher to go seven innings so most guys can take a break. Carlos Silva pitched seven innings in 22 of his 27 starts in 2005. And he only allowed more than four runs three times.

While the Pirates lack a true ace, the Pirates have three definite #2/#3 control guys atop their rotation. Because he got the job done in both 2008 and 2009, Paul Maholm is my choice to start on Opening Day.

Paul is the exception from the Littlefield era, Dave's only #1 pick that worked out. Chosen #8 overall in 2003 out of Mississippi State, he had top prospect pedigree having gone 9-2, 2.76 against SEC aluminum bat lineups that spring. He went to former New York-Penn League affiliate Williamsport and had a 1.83 ERA in the summer.

After an injury riddled 2004 when Paul nevertheless had a 3.43 ERA, he really put things together by going 7-3, 3.30 in the minors in 2005. Of course he was a young pitcher with the Pirates in the 2000s and it was time to rush him to the big leagues. He had some up and down years as a young MLB starter going 21-26, 4.60 from 2005-2007.

As I'm sure you remember, Maholm had his breakout season two years ago. The record (9-9) said mediocre but the other numbers - 206 innings, a 1.28 WHIP, 3.71 ERA and 2.7 walks per nine innings - said ace. That earned him the Opening Day start last year.

Paul continued his success and even upped the ante at the beginning of last year. He was 3-0, 2.02 after four starts and had a 3.61 ERA through June 11. Then, inexplicably, he got hit hard all summer to the tune of a 6.58 ERA and .340 batting average against from mid-June through mid-August.

There had to be some problem. Apparently it was that he had injured his knee in that Opening Day start, an injury which he later revealed hurt him all season. He wrapped his knee in ice after every start. Nevertheless Paul finished strong with a 2.89 ERA over his last seven starts.

Despite pitching through injury, there were a lot of positives in Maholm's 2009. Considering that he gave up 10.2 hits per nine innings his 8-9, 4.44 overall mark was solid. He did this by keeping the ball in the park (0.6 home runs per 9 innings) and not issuing free passes (2.8 walks per nine). In the last two years he's put up an identical 4.06 ERA to the $16 million pitcher A.J. Burnett.

While for batters the key to improvement is usually correcting a weakness, the key for Maholm will be getting better at the strongest aspect of his game. With a 90 mph fastball and hittable breaking stuff, to have a "Silva 2005" type of year Paul will need to have even better control.

I think he does that in 2010. An ace in 2008, Paul was pitching hurt in a horrible atmosphere last year and still was a good #3 starter. He'll be 28 this year and I think he has a career year - a hit an inning and 1.8 walks per nine innings while still under one home run per nine. That would yield a 3.30 ERA which would be good for 15 wins with the improved offense.

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