10 Minutes With Braves Pitcher Paul Maholm

“There was a start last June, in Arizona, and … ” Paul Maholm started to laugh before I could finish the sentence. In general, the first 14 starts of his 2012 season went poorly. But his June 23 outing against the D-backs was the worst of them all: 3⅓ innings, three walks, nine hits, seven runs. “It was one of those days where you have nothing,” Maholm recalled, shaking his head.

That disastrous start in the desert left the left-hander with a 5.38 ERA for the season. In a very ordinary career that spanned from slightly below average to slightly above average, this was the low point. Two days later, Paul Maholm turned 30 years old. On that blessed day, Jamie Moyer descended from the mountaintop, handed Maholm the crafty lefty’s guidebook to success and eternal life, then disappeared into the ether. And yea did Maholm ascend to greatness.

It’s conceivable that Maholm’s incredible performance since then is grounded in tangible adjustments rather than a visit from the Prophet Moyer. But the scope of Maholm’s rise invites the highest of superlatives. In 140 innings since his Chase Field meltdown, Maholm has struck out 116 batters, walked 36, and allowed just 10 homers and 111 hits. His ERA during that stretch: 2.25. That’s better than Clayton Kershaw, Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez, or any other starting pitcher (with a comparable number of innings pitched) over that span.

ERA isn’t a perfect measure of success, of course, and Maholm has had a bit of good fortune on his side for those 140 innings, including a .270 batting average on balls in play and an abnormally low home-run-to-fly-ball rate at just about 5 percent. Still, when you’ve got two-thirds of a season’s worth of evidence that a previously ordinary lefty is suddenly pitching as well or better than any other starter on Earth, you start to wonder just what the hell is going on. On a snowed-out Monday afternoon at Coors Field, I sat down with Maholm to ask him a simple question: Just what the hell is going on?

What changed for you after that start in Arizona?

I just started pitching better, executing pitches better, mixing speeds well. I’ve always tried to do everything I could to stay consistent. I’ve had runs where I’ve gone well for maybe six weeks, but not over an extended period of time like this. So I’m just doing everything I can to make sure I keep doing what I’ve been doing. I don’t know … maybe it really was turning 30.

And with most pitchers, you’ll see velocity peak when they’re in their 20s, often early 20s. In your case, you were never throwing 97 or anything. But if you look at your average velocity, it was about 89-90 during your prime velocity years. Now it’s about 87. Has that had an effect on what you’ve tried to do, the pitches you’ve tried to throw, and the situations in which you’ve thrown them?

It doesn’t really change my approach exactly. I’ve never been a big flamethrower to begin with, so I’ve had to learn from the beginning how to pitch, how to limit damage without getting a punchout. But my average fastball also takes a hit because I’m not afraid to throw an 83-mph BP fastball …

… as a first-pitch get-me-over? Or as a kind of changeup?

If I think the guy is going to be aggressive swinging, I don’t want to groove exactly what he’s looking for. So either they’ll take it, or if things are going well, they’ll ground out. There’s stuff like that. I’m looking more at the difference between my fastball and my changeup. With my cutter, I want to make sure there’s a difference of about 3 to 4 miles per hour off my fastball, too. Most games I’m still throwing 87 to 89. I’m just not afraid to take a hit, if it means throwing a slower fastball, or now throwing low-60 curveballs.

I think over the course of my career I’ve come to realize that an out’s an out. Whether I punch ’em out, whether I throw 70 percent sinkers or 60 percent breaking balls in a game, an out’s an out. I’ll look at all the stats and go from there.

What kind of stats are you looking at specifically?

Mainly against hitters, which pitches get them out and where they need to be located. I don’t watch a whole lot of video or anything. I’ll look at a scouting report an hour or two before the game. We have boxes on every pitch for each part of the zone that tells you what to throw and what not to throw. I just look at it and try to find two to three pitches I can exploit.

You’ve always thrown a good number of changeups, but you really used to throw a lot of them three or four years ago, especially with two strikes. Last year, you started throwing more sliders, in two-strike counts, and in general. What made you decide to make that change?

It’s always been one of those [secondary] pitches that I’ll go to. I have a curveball and a slider, and usually one of them will be better than the other on a certain day, so I’ll just go with that one. If my slider’s working, it’s a good down-and-in pitch. Being a sinkerball guy, it’s coming out on the same plane and it’s diving down into them when it’s working.

The bigger thing over the last year — or whatever it’s been — is, if I’m going away to a righty, I have three or four pitches that come out looking the same. Whether it be a sinker, four-seam changeup, backdoor cutter, whatever it might be, it’s coming out looking the same, and they have to commit to one of the pitches.

Is that arm slot thing something you’ve improved over the years? Do you feel like you’re doing that better now?

I would say it’s just more consistent now. The biggest thing is getting ahead of guys and executing pitches. Like I said, I’m just trying to mix speeds and mix locations and not let them get comfortable. And if I think they’re getting comfortable, I’m not afraid to throw inside with a four-seamer or a cutter and try to get outs that way.

Last summer, the Braves tried to trade for Ryan Dempster. That didn’t work out, so they figure, “OK, we’re going to go get Maholm.” Was that a kick in the pants for you at all, to know you were the no. 2 choice?

No, no. It was funny, being with Demp [on the Cubs], we were in Pittsburgh when everything was going on and it wasn’t like, “I didn’t want to go to the Braves.” It just wasn’t quite the right timing yet. The deadline came, we’re all kind of in the dugout, a couple of trades start coming down, and I really didn’t think anything of it. I knew there was a chance. But it’s funny, because it was Dempster who was the one who came to me and said, “Hey, you just got traded to the Braves.”

It was closer to home for me and it was the team I grew up watching — I was a Braves fan growing up, so it was cool. About a minute and a half later, the strength guy said, “Hey, Jed [Hoyer] needs to see you in his office,” so that’s when I found out. Obviously, going to a contender in the middle of a playoff run — that makes it a lot easier going into August and September when you’re going out there playing on a team that eventually won 94 games. It makes going to the ballpark a lot easier. Same with this season, knowing we’re going to have a good team, knowing I was going to be counted on. That’s obviously a confidence booster, for them to trade for me, to count on me to do well, then to pick up my option and keep me around. That’s another thing, just to get confidence and roll off of it, it’s kind of a snowball effect. So that now I’m confident that I can go deep into games, that they’ll put up some runs for me, and that I’ll have a chance to get a win.

You’re saying all this stuff humbly. “Gee, it’s great they picked up my option.” Since the end of June, your numbers are better than anyone’s! You have to be at least a little aware of the run you’re on, right?

For me it’s just fun. I have fun when I go out there. I like to have fun on the mound. I mean obviously … I like to throw slow curveballs, which are nerve-racking, but it’s also fun to just throw them out there and see what happens.

When did you start doing that?

When I was with the Pirates, the guys always had a competition to see who could throw the slowest curveball. My slowest was around 62. It was usually around 65-66. This year I got to 58. I was always worried about telegraphing it — hitters are going to stay back if they know it’s coming. But I started doing it in spring training, got a couple of swings-and-misses, got a couple of guys freezing. I’m not going to do it every time I throw a curveball. Sometimes I’ll do it once in a game, sometimes three or four times. It’s really just a feel thing, based on what I think the hitter’s trying to do and how I’m feeling with it on that day. It’s just another thought to throw in the hitter’s mind.

What was it like playing on this team last year, having that playoff run, and especially it being Chipper’s last hurrah?

Being in Pittsburgh for six years and being in Chicago for half a year, it was new. Everything was new; I’d never been through it before. Then I walked into the clubhouse and right away it was like I was one of the guys. It was cool just to walk in. The lineup we were working with was an All-Star lineup, with Chipper, with Freddie, Mac behind the plate, J-Hey, Bourn, all those guys, getting to throw to Mac, getting to throw to Rossie. I was just kind of in a daze the whole time, just trying to keep up my end of the bargain every fifth day and not screw up the playoff run we were trying to go for. Last year was just one of those where you look back on it — [my] first time being on a winning team; for me it was like being a little kid in a candy store. Just getting to play with Chipper his last year, getting to play with all those guys I mentioned.

And I enjoy just coming in to play every day, seeing the lineup that we’re throwing out there now …

… that Justin Upton can hit …

Yeah, he can. And Freddie’s been out, Mac, too …

… but you have Evan Gattis, he’s going to win the Triple Crown!

[Laughs.] Sure. But I’ll tell you, I threw to him in spring training, I’ve thrown to him every time so far during the season. And you know, during the spring, we’re just working on stuff. And he’s surprised me with how well he’s picked up making adjustments in the game, going over the scouting reports with you, relying on your strengths and not just going after the hitters’ weaknesses. Obviously he’s a big guy, but he moves around well, gets you pitches, sticks it. He really does everything he can to make sure that he’s great behind the dish.

Filed Under: Atlanta Braves, MLB

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Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a national best seller. His new book Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

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