Paul Maholm and Greatness

Last night, Paul Maholm started the 238th game of his career, twirling six one-run innings on the way to a 3-2 Braves victory. You may not realize it — perhaps because you didn’t realize that he’s from Mississippi, or don’t spend a great deal of time thinking about Paul Maholm — but Paul Maholm has the fourth-most starts of anyone ever born in Mississippi. (Roy Oswalt is first, of course.) After nine seasons as a more or less slightly-below-average starting pitcher, it’s safe to say that Paul Maholm is one of the greatest baseball players in the history of his home state.

The best players from Mississippi are Dave Parker, an MVP who was a slightly worse player than Dale Murphy; Frank White, a defensive whiz and iconic Royal; Chet Lemon, a dark-horse Hall of Fame candidate at the keystone; Ellis Burks, who was better than you remember; and Oswalt. Maholm is somewhere between the third- and sixth-best pitcher in Mississippi history.

Maholm’s greatness, in this sense, comes not so much from his own personal dominance as from a small pool of competitors. On the other hand, it isn’t that small. Mississippi has a population just under three million, making it the 31st-largest state in the country; the town of his birth, Greenwood, has a population around 16,000 but has still produced four major leaguers, all pitchers, of whom Maholm is by far the best.

(The Royals’ Louis Coleman was born in the same town. So were the novelist Donna Tartt and Byron De La Beckwith, who assassinated Medgar Evers. A suburb of Greenwood, Itta Bena, was the birthplace of two troubled leaders in the civil rights movement: Marion Berry, who became the mayor of Washington, DC and was later accused of smoking crack; and James Bevel, who was almost certainly insane. Mississippi is complicated.)

Many Mississippians are justly remembered for their nicknames rather than their performance, especially Vinegar Bend Mizell, Oil Can Boyd, Boo Ferriss, and the beautifully named Slim Love. (Their actual given names: Wilmer, Dennis, Dave, and Edward.) Boyd and Mizell were fairly similar players: they were basically league-average starters who hung around for a decade, a bit like Maholm, except that Maholm is likely to stay around for much longer. (After all, he’s a lefty.)

Ferriss looked like a star in the making but he only pitched three seasons before injuries wrecked his career. Slim Love only pitched 500 forgettable innings in the majors — but his legacy could get a big boost if someone on the internet realizes that there was a New York Yankee named Slim Love and uses that as the name of their indie side project.

So, Paul Maholm’s “greatness” is complicated, and requires context. That’s true for the state he comes from. It’s also true for the organization that drafted him. In the decade after drafting Jason Kendall in 1992, the Pirates drafted exactly one player who became an average major leaguer: Kris Benson in 1996, who was exactly average.

Maholm in 2003 was the team’s best draft success since the team’s last playoff appearance. Two years after that, the Pirates drafted Andrew McCutchen, the single biggest reason that the Pirates have gone from the cellar to contending for the division. But Maholm was part of that turnaround.

Over the last two years, Maholm has thrown nearly 200 innings for the Braves, and is on his way to his second playoff appearance in two years. He was a key midseason acquisition last year, helping the Braves to secure a Wild Card spot last year and playing a role in the Braves’ patchwork rotation this year. He has only played for three teams: Pittsburgh from 2005 to 2011, Chicago for the first half of 2012 and Atlanta since then.

The Braves are the first good team he’s played for, and he has played a key role: while homegrown hotshot prospects Mike Minor and Julio Teheran have turned into borderline aces, other homegrown pitchers like Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy have spent time recovering from Tommy John surgery, and Tim Hudson has been lost for the year. Two hundred league-average innings are rarely as easy to find as they seem.

In baseball parlance, Paul Maholm is “a guy”: he isn’t good, he isn’t bad, but he’s there. He’s like the smallest giant in the Phantom Tollbooth. He looks good in comparison to others. But in the end, that isn’t such a bad thing.

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Alex is a writer for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times, and is a product manager for The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @alexremington.