Throughout Spring Training, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle vowed that the team’s pitching was going to improve this season.
Charlie Morton has been a pleasant surprise for the Bucs so far, and free agent acquisition Kevin Correia has certainly pitched like the ace of the staff, but one person that has quietly been a main reason for the Pirates’ dramatic pitching turnaround is Paul Maholm.
Maholm is currently pitching the best season of his career with a 3.66 ERA (3.42 FIP) in 76.1 innings so far. He’s striking more batters out than in years past (5.9 K/9), going deep into ball games, and allowing the lowest amount of hits per nine innings (7.8) since his rookie season.
His 2-7 record this season, then, is incredibly deceiving, especially considering Correia leads the Majors with eight wins and their results have been very similar. Aside from the two games where Maholm earned a win – one of a which was a complete game shutout against the Cubs on May 28 – the Pirates have lost in every one of his other 10 starts. In those 10 starts, he’s been backed up just 1.8 runs of support.
The eighth overall pick by the Pirates in 2003, Maholm rocketed up Pittsburgh’s minor league ladder and cracked the Major League roster in just two years. He made six starts for the Pirates in 2005, including an outing of eight scoreless innings in his Major League debut.
Now, in 2011, Maholm, aside from catcher Ryan Doumit, is the longest tenured player on the Pirates, the only organization he has ever known.
He has seen his fair share of the team’s ups and downs over the years given his time with the club, but just because he’s in his sixth full season with the team, though, doesn’t mean that he has been required to take on a special leadership role in the clubhouse as a result.
“We’ve got a great group of guys here where there’s not that dominant guy, everybody has their own style of being a leader,” the left-hander told The Good Point. “It’s more of doing it by example, so if certain things come about and you need to deal with something, it’s usually dealt with pretty easily.”
“Overall as a group, we have the same goals and everybody believes in each other.”
For Maholm, though, being on the Pirates for over six years has exposed him to the departure of many players from the organization, not to mention at least 94 losses in each of the last six seasons.
The Pirates are heading in the right direction now, though, and have put an exciting core of young position players on the field behind Maholm and the rest of the club’s pitching staff.
Led by standout center fielder Andrew McCutchen and second baseman Neil Walker, it’s easy to see how Maholm and other players are excited about the team given the amount of energy the younger players bring, which also include Jose Tabata and 2008 second-overall pick Pedro Alvarez.
“You see a lot of talent and you see them growing more comfortable being around for a year-plus, getting more acclimated to making adjustments,” Maholm said. “You see a lot of great things ahead. Hopefully we can all just pull together and get on a roll, where the offense and the pitching just finally get together at the same time.”
Aside from the infusion of youth to the team’s roster, Maholm can see another reason behind the optimistic attitude amongst the Pirates’ clubhouse this season. Clint Hurdle was hired on as the Pirates’ new skipper this offseason after serving as the Rangers’ hitting coach last season, and a seven-year stint as the Rockies’ manager before that.
The move has positively altered the Pirates’ clubhouse and Maholm, having interacted with four previous managers already in his time with the team, has noticed a clear difference with Hurdle at the helm.
“The energy, being able to joke around but know when to get down to business, or when to jump a guy or pat him on the back,” the Mississippi native said. “[He reiterates] that no matter what happens, we’ve got to come back the next day and expect to win.”
With many bright spots on their roster and some promising arms coming up through the minor leagues, the Pirates should be expecting to win for quite some time.