For all intents and purposes, the Astros have always had an ace. A dominant pitcher who could be given the ball every fifth game and be expected to shut down the opposing team as often as not. In 2001, a skinny, unseemly right-hander from Weir, Mississippi was called up in May and asked to do just that. Less than a month later, he was entered into the starting rotation, and the team won the next eight games he started, with him collecting the W in six of the eight games.
He went 12-2 as a starter that year, with three complete games including a shutout. He threw 127.2 innings as a starter, with 130 strikeouts, 17 walks, a 2.82 ERA, and a 1.03 WHIP. He was second in Rookie of the Year voting, fifth in Cy Young voting, and 22nd in MVP voting.
Eight seasons later, Roy Oswalt is the undisputed ace of the Houston rotation, but in 2001 – despite the tremendous year by Wade Miller – the ace was Shane Reynolds, who went 14-11 with a 4.34 ERA. Not ace-type numbers, but Reynolds had been the de facto ace since his 16-win campaign in 1996. Though Darryl Kile and a young Mike Hampton also pitched well for that team, Reynolds was clearly the leader.
Before Reynolds’ emergence, most people would probably have pointed at veteran Doug Drabek. Before that, Pete Harnisch. Mike Scott. Nolan Ryan.
Other teams, on the other hand, have trouble defining an ace. Specifically, the Pittsburgh Pirates – an intradivisional foe – have had a string of seriously bad luck with their aces.
In 2006, after a 14-win campaign, Ian Snell was annointed with the “ace” title. Entering the 2009 season, he has only managed 16 wins in the two years since then. In 2007, Tom Gorzelanny was the 14-game winner on the roster, and now he finds himself in minor league camp.
It seems that, as an organization, the top of the Pirates’ rotation has been befuddling at least since Oliver Perez’s Dr. Jekyll-and-Mr. Hyde act from 2004-2006. This year, their hope lies in the left arm of Paul Maholm.
Maholm is a sinkerball pitcher who has gone 19-24 over the past two seasons with 244 K and 112 BB in 384 IP. Over that time, he has an ERA of 4.31 and a WHIP of 1.35. His DIPS was 4.26 and his DICE was 4.18. By almost any metric, saber or otherwise, he’s at best an above-average pitcher.
And last month, they awarded him with a three-year, $14.5m contract to avoid arbitration.
That’s a lot of money for a guy who had 2.7 Value Wins a year ago. So does Maholm have ace-type stuff, or is he merely benefitting from being part of a weak pitching staff?
Maholm’s VORP in 2008 was 40.8 – 30th in the majors among pitchers with a minimum 100 IP. Roy Oswalt’s 43.3 was just five spots ahead at 25th. It was almost double the next-highest VORP on the team, reliever John Grabow with 22.3, and far away above Zach Duke, who had the second-highest VORP among Pirates starters in 2008 with 5.3.
Compare that to Gorzelanny in 2007, whose 41.5 VORP was 31st in the majors and just 0.2 ahead of rotation-mate Ian Snell. In 2008, Gorzelanny’s VORP had tumbled to -13.2; in other words, worse than a replacement-level player. Snell’s was “better” at -3.9, but hardly good. There is some indication that Snell, at least, was the victim of bad luck, as his BABIP was a hefty .360, compared to Maholm’s .298.
But Pirates coaches believe Maholm has the mental makeup of an ace, which can of course be important. Pitching coach Joe Kerrigan, who used to work with the Yankees and the Red Sox, told Sporting News “If you’ve seen him throwing on the side, see his understanding of the
game, the understanding of his craft — pitching — you can tell he has
a great idea,” Kerrigan said. “He’s a coach’s dream. The effort he puts
into the side sessions, his bullpen sessions, is translated into the
That’s great, but it doesn’t exactly make him an ace.
Maholm has been coolly efficient this spring, going 2-0 with a 0.46 ERA, 12 K, and 1 BB in 19.2 IP. He’s run out of innings in games well before hitting the maximum pitch count set aside by his coaches this spring.
Considering the rapid falls from grace many of the Pirates’ other “aces” have seen in recent years, it’s definitely too early to give Maholm the title – and as of right now, he is being vastly overpaid – but there’s certainly room for hope for the Pirates, who need as much as they can get.