Approaching the 2012 trade deadline, there was reason to wonder if the Braves would be in the market for anything other than a bench bat. The team was performing well, was in a good place in the standings, and didn't have any egregious holes outside of the bench.
Then came the Ryan Dempster Saga, as Frank Wren (apparently) tried to pry Dempster and his expiring contract away from the Cubs by dangling Randall Delgado. Dempster held off on approving the deal until it fell apart, a result that many Braves fans greeted with a sigh of relief. Not to be deterred, Wren instead traded for Dempster's rotation-mate, Paul Maholm (along with that long-desired bench bat, Reed Johnson).
The cost was fairly high: Arodys Vizcaino and Jaye Chapman. Vizcaino, despite currently being out with a major arm injury, is a major talent, and Chapman provided the Cubs with a major-league-ready relief arm. (Chapman got into 14 games for the Cubs, striking out a batter an inning but walking nearly as many.) Still, the price was much less than the Dempster deal, as Delgado is much more likely than Vizcaino to become a successful MLB starter (and also isn't hurt).
The Braves are likely glad they got Maholm instead of Dempster, even aside from the trade cost. For one thing, Dempster bombed after he was eventually traded to Texas. For another, Dempster is a free agent now, while the Braves were able to secure Maholm's services for 2013 at the very reasonable price of $6.5 million. Plus, Maholm pitched pretty well for the Braves.
In 11 starts with the Braves, covering 68.2 innings, Maholm posted a solid 3.54 ERA and a similar 3.76 FIP. He also struck out almost 21% of the batters he faced, which is a ton for him; his previous full-season best was 16.3%, and he struck out 16.1% with the Cubs in 2012. Those numbers were undone by two horrific outings in which he allowed 15 runs (13 earned) in 6.1 innings.
Maholm also had a lot of good outings. He went at least 6.2 innings in 8 of his 11 starts as a Brave and allowed 2 or fewer runs in 7 starts. He also had one of the best-pitched games by a Brave all year, a complete game 3-hit shutout of the Mets on August 10th.
Going forward, Maholm is fairly likely to be a decent 4th starter for the Braves in 2013. The big question is whether he can be better than decent, as he has been for the past two seasons. In his first 6 seasons, Maholm posted a mediocre 4.48 ERA (5% below league average) and struck out just 14% of batters while walking 8% of them. Since the start of the 2011 season, however, Maholm has a 3.66 ERA (5% above league average) with a 16% K rate and a 7% walk rate.
Even if he reverts to his pre-2011 form, Maholm will still make a serviceable back-end-of-the-rotation type. He'll also be easily worth his salary, barring a down year akin to his 2010 season. However, there's always a chance that Maholm has figured something out the past two seasons. If that happens, the trade will end up looking OK even if Vizcaino develops into a quality player for the Cubs.
The key to Maholm's improved performance, in my opinion, is his newfound success against right-handed batters. Before 2011, Maholm always had huge platoon splits. Left-handed hitters have never had better than a .310 wOBA against Maholm, but right-handed hitters had the following wOBAs in Maholm's first 5 full seasons: .376, .358, .337, .365, and .370. That's on an OBP scale, so basically, Maholm has always been good-to-great against lefties, but prior to 2011, he was always bad-to-terrible against righties.
The last two years, though? Maholm has had no platoon split at all. Righties have a .311 wOBA against him, and lefties have a .309 wOBA. This equivalent performance has come in different ways, however; Maholm has dominated lefties, striking out over 20% of them while posting low walk and homer rates (especially in 2012). Against righties, though, his strikeout rates have been much lower (under 15%) and his walk and homer rates have been higher.
In other words, Maholm's success against righties the past two seasons has been dependent in large part upon a low BABIP: .278 in 2011 and .268 in 2012. His career BABIP against righties is .312, by the way. That leaves us with two possibilities: either Maholm has gotten lucky against righties the past 2 years or he's learned a new way of getting them to make weak contact.
I have no idea which scenario is more likely. There does seem to be some evidence in Maholm's player card at Brooks Baseball that he's pitched righties differently the past 2 years, but it's hardly conclusive. As with so many other things, we'll just have to wait and see.