Paul Maholm And The Starting Pitching Market

The free-agent market for starting pitching has been slow to develop this offseason, but now that Masahiro Tanaka has chosen a team, signings are trickling in. Two recent NL West contracts demonstrate how uncertain that market can be. The Diamondbacks agreed to terms with Bronson Arroyo on a two-year, $23.5MM deal that includes an option for 2016, and the Dodgers signed Paul Maholm for one year and $1.5MM guaranteed, with the chance to make up to $5MM more in incentives.

There are clear differences between the two pitchers — Arroyo is a righty and Maholm is a lefty, and Arroyo has been the more durable of the two. That's a trend that might not persist, given that Arroyo is five years older than Maholm. But Maholm did miss a start in September due to elbow soreness (although an MRI revealed no structural trouble) and he pitched 49 fewer innings than Arroyo last year.

Arroyo and Maholm aren't that different, however. They're both low-upside, pitch-to-contact types who give their teams decent chances of winning as mid-rotation or back-of-the-rotation starters. And statistically, they're reasonably similar.

Arroyo

Year K/9 BB/9 fWAR
2011 4.9 2.0 -1.5
2012 5.8 1.6 2.4
2013 5.5 1.5 0.8

Maholm

Year K/9 BB/9 fWAR
2011 5.4 2.8 1.7
2012 6.8 2.5 2.2
2013 6.2 2.8 0.7

One could actually make the case that, over the past three seasons, Maholm has been better than Arroyo. As Fangraphs' David Cameron noted yesterday (via Twitter), Maholm appears to be quite a bargain in comparison. (I made a similar observation at my own blog.)

Others have noted the huge disparity between Maholm's contract and that of Jason Vargas, who received four years and $32MM from the Royals earlier this winter. Like Maholm, Vargas is a 31-year-old, pitch-to-contact lefty. Vargas has produced 4.5 WAR over the last three seasons, compared to 4.6 for Maholm.

The common thread here may be the perception that Arroyo and Vargas are more likely to give their new teams 200 innings. (Vargas only pitched 150 last season after missing time due to a blood clot, but he threw at least 201 in both 2011 and 2012.) If that's the case, however, the market seems to be overreacting. In theory, a team could easily get two Maholm-type fragile pitchers and hope for them to combine for 250 or so decent innings, rather than paying Arroyo or Vargas many times more. A team would have to clear an extra spot on its roster that way, but that seems like a small matter compared to the savings in dollars.

In fact, in a way, this seems to be what the Dodgers are doing — they'll have Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Dan Haren for the first four spots, and then Maholm, Josh Beckett and Chad Billingsley will soak up the remaining innings. (Beckett and Billingsley are both returning from injury.) If Arroyo posts 200 innings, that's surely useful, but given that his innings aren't the highest quality, a team should be able to compensate for reduced back-of-the-rotation certainty with greater depth.

Among Arroyo, Vargas and Maholm, Maholm is probably the outlier. MLBTR's Tim Dierkes' projection for Arroyo's contract was almost exactly on the money, while Maholm's contract, at least the guaranteed portion, falls well short of Dierkes' projected one year and $7MM. Perhaps teams are simply extremely concerned about Maholm's elbow. (In fact, that seems at least somewhat likely, given Maholm's apparent openness to pitching in relief. One would think a pitcher of his caliber would be able to find a sure starting job somewhere.)

If not, though, Maholm's deal doesn't bode well for a pitcher like lefty free agent Chris Capuano. Capuano's value has been similar to Vargas or Maholm the past three seasons (with 4.8 total fWAR), but he only pitched 105 2/3 innings last year due to a series of injuries, and he has two Tommy John surgeries in his past. Given Capuano's tendency to pitch reasonably strong innings when healthy, though, he could give his next team great value. Maholm's contract could be a bargain for the Dodgers, and the team that picks up Capuano could be in line for a bargain as well.


20 Responses to Paul Maholm And The Starting Pitching Market Leave a Reply

  1. jkoms57 . 1 year ago

    Maholm is clearly a specific case where this guy is trying to make a name for himself. He is a good middle of the rotation guy who is using LAD as a platform to notoriety.

    He’s taking less money now, to have a good record on a winning team, in hopes that it will pay off big in his next contract.

    • Daniel Morairity 1 year ago

      I think that arroyo and maholm are very good pitchers but arroyo is the older pitcher so there isnt much when you compare the two

  2. pft2 1 year ago

    Only thing that makes sense is there must have been something in Maholms medicals, perhaps the elbow. I would treat it as an outlier and not reflective of the market for SPers.

    • rouscher 1 year ago

      Possibly, or he saw LA as stomping grounds. Because with that offense and bullpen behind him, if he pitches 10-15 quality starts he could end up with a 10-15 win-loss, sub 4.00 era which we’ll end up as a decent contract. Or its elbow issues too never know, or both but he put himself in a great position

  3. BlueSkyLA
    BlueSkyLA 1 year ago

    The performance bonuses are probably very achievable, so the headline number is deceptive, and likely Tim’s projection is going to be very close, assuming Maholm doesn’t land on the DL. The real story here might be that the player has assumed most of the risk, which isn’t something we are used to seeing for a player who isn’t coming off a serious injury. Now if that became a trend….

    • Seamaholic 1 year ago

      This. Maholm isn’t that much of a bargain. Although I agree Arroyo was a little overpaid, especially that 3rd year.

      • BlueSkyLA
        BlueSkyLA 1 year ago

        The Dodgers are also showing a clear preference for one-year hires to fill out the bottom of the rotation, and those contracts don’t generally come at bargain rates.

  4. dieharddodgerfan 1 year ago

    A couple factors to probably consider:

    1. The Dodgers are a contender so he gets to play for a team with a chance to win it all. Probably factors in.

    2. The NL West, in general, has a lot of pitcher friendly parks and less potent lineups so it gives Maholm a chance to pitch well, rehab his value, and go back on the market and get a long term deal as a 32 year old.

    We could see the Dodgers start to have a bit of an advantage with veteran players who may be willing to come to play for them for slightly lesser money with a chance at possibly winning a championship in mind.

    As guys get older, winning likely becomes more and more important.

    • connfyoozed . 1 year ago

      I agree on both counts. Maholm pitched on some pretty bad Pirates and Cubs teams for most of his career. I would not be surprised if he was OK with taking less guaranteed money from the Dodgers in exchange for a promise to compete for a title. A player never knows how much longer he has until he is done.

      • dieharddodgerfan 1 year ago

        Yeah, veteran players who have played for a while and not been to the postseason a lot (or ever) tend to favor playing for contenders.

        And, in Maholm’s case, he can do that and probably post some decent numbers and maybe get a long-term deal in 2015.

        Contributing to a playoff team would definitely raise his free agent stock next offseason.

  5. John Cate 1 year ago

    You’re using the Fangraphs version of WAR, which is based on what their system “thinks” the pitcher’s run-prevention performance should have been, rather than what it actually was. If you use the Baseball Reference version, which is based on what the pitcher actually did, Arroyo was worth 5.1 WAR the past three seasons (-1.0, 3.6, 2.5), rather than 1.7, and he’s ahead of Maholm 6.1-1.9 if you only use the past two seasons. The Fangraphs system heavily favors high-strikeout, ground-ball pitchers, and Arroyo out-performs it almost every year even though he’s pitched in bandboxes.

  6. Steve_in_MA 1 year ago

    With Arroyo, you get 200+ innings, AND one less walk per 9 innings. I think there’s a big value to eating the additional innings and not putting that additional guy on base via the free pass.

    • connfyoozed . 1 year ago

      Yours is a good point, but Maholm is relatively stingy allowing walks as well (2.9/9 innings for his career, vs. 2.5 for Arroyo). The only difference there is that Arroyo’s BB/9 numbers have been significantly better than his career average over the last 3 years, whereas Maholm’s numbers have remained consistent from year to year. Arroyo certainly does eat more innings than Maholm, although I would add the caveat that Arroyo has pitched for better teams for most of his career: this means he likely was pitching with leads more often, and was less likely to be pinch-hit for in earlier innings. Arroyo’s K/9 numbers also rose in the last couple of years, which also helps to offset his higher HR/9 numbers compared to Maholm.

      In short: I agree that Arroyo is a better pitcher than Maholm, but that shouldn’t be a reflection on Maholm. Arroyo is the more desirable pitcher, but I don’t think the difference between him and Maholm is that huge. Arizona may or may not have gotten a good deal in signing Arroyo, but the Dodgers did very well signing Maholm for the money.

      • Steve_in_MA 1 year ago

        No doubt, the Dodgers got rotation depth at a deep discount. And I can’t recall there ever being a team in the modern era who went a full season with just 5 starters making starts. An excellent investment, especially given the health, wear/tear and age of Beckett.

        That said, I can see why Arroyo would get $5MM more per season. The difference in innings is attributable to durability, not pitching with a lead, even though your statement regarding the quality of teams they’ve pitched for is entirely correct. Maholm just has a nasty habit of hitting the DL every year. And Arroyo’s BB/9 is more like 1.7 for the last 3 years – a full pass per game less than Maholm’s. 1 runner sounds miniscule in the abstract, but I’ll bet that 30% of the time, that 1 runner ends up scoring on him.

  7. Anthony Hughes 1 year ago

    This is a very thoughtful article from Charlie, and I’ve never seen him on the site before, so I welcome him. Nice work.

    I think Arroyo is the better pitcher, but the $22MM difference in guarantees here is MASSIVE. These guys are similar pitchers, after all. The Dodgers played this really well, especially if their interest in Arroyo drove up the price for the D’backs.

    • Charlie Wilmoth 1 year ago

      Thanks, but I’ve been writing for the site for a year!

      • Anthony Hughes 1 year ago

        I guess I don’t notice everything. LOL. Nonetheless, good work!

  8. Haastile 1 year ago

    I think you need to clarify that you are using fWAR and not WAR. When you say Jason Vargas has produced 4.5 WAR, thats not actually correct. fWar is based on FIP and is a based on what fangraphs thinks the pitcher was worth based on the only factors a pitcher can control- walks, k’s, homeruns.

    Some pitchers consistently outperform their FIP and Bronson Arroyo is one of them. Since Bronson has outperformed his FIP for nearly a decade, its not that useful of a statistic.

    • Charlie Wilmoth 1 year ago

      There is no pure WAR, just WAR from different sources, and I did indicate above that I was using Fangraphs WAR. Because the point of the article is to examine why there’s such a difference in what two teams should pay for a pitcher next year (that is, based on projected performance), I’m not that comfortable with a blunter tool like bWAR. I do agree that FIP isn’t the most favorable statistic to Arroyo, though, for the reason you mention. A WAR based on something like SIERA would have been more useful in this case. SIERA still likes Maholm better, but not by as much. Unfortunately, that doesn’t exist, at least not that I’m aware of.

      • Haastile 1 year ago

        Thanks for the response Charlie. I love what you all do here, I read every day.

        My only response/question is:
        Is using fWAR a fair tool to use to measure Arroyo’s PAST performance? I understand it is valuable to measure future performance.

        Because of his ability to outperform FIP, fWAR is not indicating what Bronson was actually worth to the Reds. It indicates what he should have been worth but we already know what he was worth according to the same algorithm that produced fWAR minus the adjustment for FIP .

        Same with Vargas- he “should have been worth” 4.5 WAR according to his FIP but he was actually worth this (not sure what it is) WAR.

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