It’s been a great start to the season for Braves left-hander Paul Maholm, who dazzled early this week in his start against the Marlins. Maholm shutout Miami over 7 innings, surrendering just one hit, while striking out 7 Marlin hitters. For Maholm it was the second stellar start of the young season after a 5 2/3 innings effort against the Phillies last week, and very few in the Braves camp are surprised.
Acquired by the Braves at the trade deadline in 2012, Maholm has provided the Braves with a slew of quality starts and a veteran presence in the middle of a youthful rotation. At first glance though, Maholm, whose fastball sits in 86-88 MPH range, appears to be very hittable. Throw in a change-up that is just six MPH slower than his fastball, and a curveball that generally stays in the low 70’s and Maholm looks downright little league. So how is that a pitcher such as Maholm with below-average stuff can continue to baffle big league lineups? The answer is simply: command.
It’s an age-old adage that throwing first-pitch strikes is the key to success for a pitcher at any level, within any realm of velocity or movement. But for Maholm, the rule might need to be amended. In his 7 innings on Monday night, Maholm faced 26 batters; he threw first-pitch strikes to just 14. For a command/finesse guy, that number should spell trouble. It’s the second pitch of at bats, though, where Maholm makes his money. Maholm tallied 21 at bats Monday night in which he threw a strike in the first two pitches. Only four times over the course of the game did he face a 2-0 count against a hitter. In an age when more and more hitters are gearing up for counts to unload long, homerun swings, Maholm has made it a priority to keep the count in his favor.
Also key in Maholm’s success is the location and rotation of his off-speed pitches. Maholm throws a good changeup and also features both a slider and a curveball, but it’s the sporadic use of these pitches that give him such deception. Unlike many big league pitchers with below-average fastball velocity, Maholm actually uses his fastball—or any variation of it—to set up his off-speed pitches. Of the 26 at bats in Monday night’s game Maholm only featured back-to-back off-speed pitches eight times. With the ability to throw both a two-seam and cut fastball to right and left-handed hitters, Maholm enables himself to keep hitters off balance with fastball movement alone. It is not until late in at bats, for the most part, that Maholm even needs to feature the off-speed pitches to finish off hitters. Of the seven strikeouts that Maholm recorded on Monday, five came via the off-speed pitch.
So it’s easy to see how Maholm is often overlooked in the conversation of middle-of-the-rotation starters around the league, as he seems to miss out on both the power and typical command categories. But as an eight-year veteran of the league, it is clear that Maholm has found his niche in terms of getting hitters out. It may not be the glamorous fastball of Justin Verlander or the devastating changeup of Kris Medlen, but in a playoff series in October, I like Atlanta’s chances with Maholm squaring off against any 3rd starter in the league.