In my past as an armchair baseball analyst, one of my favorite things to do was to research players that had one amazing “career year” that stands out among the others. They’re baseball’s “one hit wonders,” if you will. Here, we take a look at a left-handed starting pitcher by the name of Mike Maroth. We’ll look at his career overall and how his career year stands out among the rest of his resume. Meanwhile, we’ll also look at the underlying stats that reveal if it was a fluke or true talent on display.
Mike Maroth is a name that should be familiar to Detroit Tigers’ fans of the 2000’s. He pitched on some pretty bad Tigers teams, including one that was historically bad. But, Maroth actually pitched well in his rookie season, was at replacement level his sophomore year, and turned in a career year in year three. While he pretty much just ate innings after that, Maroth did enjoy some Major League success that we’ll remember today.
Baseball Reference VS FanGraphs & Wins Above Replacement (WAR)When Valuing Baseball Player Careers
When it comes to referring to a baseball player stats, many statistically inclined fans turn to one or both of two sites: Baseball-Reference or FanGraphs. Due to differences in how the websites calculate Wins Above Replacement, the common stat used to summarize a player’s value, FanGraphs actually likes Maroth MORE than Baseball Reference! This is because Baseball-Reference bases their WAR on RA/9 (Runs Allowed per 9 innings) whereas FanGraphs uses FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching). In simpler terms, Baseball Reference bases value on actual results while FanGraphs takes some of the “luck” out of the calculation by removing elements out of the pitcher’s control, and focusing on those that the pitcher can control: strikeouts, walks, home runs, hit by pitches, and home runs allowed.
As we’ll see when comparing how Baseball Reference and FanGraphs view Maroth’s career, it turns out that Maroth was actually a better pitcher talent-wise than the results would have you believe. Considering how bad the 2002 through 2005 Tigers were, that’s to be expected. Had injuries not stalled and ultimately wrecked Maroth’s career, he would’ve been a league average to slightly above-average pitcher for some time.
Mike Maroth’s Beginnings
Mike Maroth was drafted out of UCF in the third round in the 1998 draft. He had a fairly good debut between the Rookie Gulf Coast League Red Sox and the Low-A Lowell Spinners. He demonstrated very good control and strikeout stuff. In 1999, he’d be traded to the Detroit Tigers for relief pitcher Bryce Florie. It would end up being a steal.
At the time of the trade, Maroth was pitching OK at A-Ball Sarasota. He wasn’t striking out many batters and he was giving up more walks due to facing more advanced hitters. But, he was still decently effective. But after going to Lakeland, his results improved. The Tigers advanced him to AA Jacksonville where he struggled.
Maroth would repeat AA the next year with considerably better results, but his strikeout rate continued to drop while his walks didn’t. The Tigers continued to challenge him, though, sending him to AAA Toledo in 2001. He took a lot of lumps, to say the least, with fewer strikeouts
Maroth’s Rookie Year: 2002
In 2002, however, something finally clicked for Maroth. His walks dropped slightly and his strikeouts increased. Desperate for pitching, the 2002 Tigers – who would only win 55 games all year – were happy to give Maroth a shot. He instantly delivered. His debut was seven shutout innings against the Philadelphia Phillies.
In his rookie year, Maroth relied on a fastball that averaged 85 mph almost 60 percent of the time, a changeup averaging about 75 mph 21 percent of the time, a curveball 17 percent of the time, and his slider only 5 percent of the time. This pitch mix would change over time, especially the slider usage. It’s relevant when we look at his future seasons.
On the surface, though, Maroth’s rookie year doesn’t look all that great. However, keep in mind that this was a dreadful team. In fact, there were a lot of positives about his rookie season. According to FanGraphs, his slider, curveball, and changeup were all above-average pitchers by run values. His fastball was below average, but with a velocity that low, that’s not surprising.
Maroth barely struck anyone out in his debut, with only 58 K’s in 128 ⅔ innings for a rate of 4.06 K/9. But, he didn’t walk that many batters, either. He only walked 36 batters in that many innings for a rate of 2.52 BB/9. That walk mark would be in line with the rest of his career, which is part of the reason that he had some success. He stayed around the zone in the Majors better than he did in the minors.
Mike also gave up almost no home runs. His 0.49 HR/9 was crazy low. He only gave up 7 home runs all year. There were other positives, too. He only allowed a league-average batting line against him, which is obviously good. He was also very good against lefties, unsurprisingly with his array of breaking stuff. His .252/.301/.374 batting line against lefties was good for 20 to 25 percent below average. Righties hit him about 10 percent better than average, but that’s not unusual for a lefty. Also, Maroth was a far superior pitcher at home in Comerica Park, then most definitely a pitcher’s park. That explains a good deal of his low home run rate.
All told, Mike Maroth finishes with a 4.48 ERA in 21 starts and 6 wins. That’s good for a 1.7 WAR according to B-R. That meant he was about a league-average pitcher. By the underlying stats, you would come to the conclusion that that’s exactly what Maroth was.
But FanGraphs saw more to him than that. By the FIP measure, taking the lousy Tigers defense out of the mix, his expected ERA was 3.65. This gives him a 2.4 WAR mark, meaning he was actually an above-average pitcher – not quite an all-star, but a mid-rotation starter without a doubt. On the other hand, due to an extremely low HR rate, his expected FIP was 4.31, due to his low strikeout rate. Basically, what you saw was what you got, but he was a bit unlucky due to being on a dreadful team.
Unfortunately, his second year in the Majors wouldn’t go so well.
Maroth’s Sad Sophomore Season: 2003
Everyone knew that Maroth was a guy that lived and died by his off-speed stuff. After his sophomore year, a lot of people think he died by it.
In 193 ⅓ innings, Maroth had a whopping 5.73 ERA and twenty-one losses in 33 starts for the 2003 season. That 21 losses led the league and was actually a record. Then again, win-loss record really means nothing, especially on a 2003 Tigers team that was HISTORICALLY BAD with 119 losses! Both FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference saw his 2003 performance as roughly replacement level, 0.2 on Baseball-Reference and 0.4 from FanGraphs
Was Maroth actually THAT BAD, though?
Maroth actually walked fewer batters per nine innings in 2003. He struck out batters at roughly the same rate, too. Where the bad luck happened was with the home runs. He surrendered thirty-four home runs. If that sounds like a lot, it is. He surrendered 20 homers on the road and 14 at home. Again, he was otherwise better at home, but extremely bad on the road. That’s even with the Tigers moving in the fences at Comerica Park to help the home team hit more home runs. But that wasn’t Maroth’s problem.
There’s no doubt that giving up all those home runs made Maroth into a below average pitcher. But was there actually anything different about Maroth rather than a few extra gopher balls?
There actually was a difference. Maroth’s pitch mix had changed significantly. He cut his curveball usage in favor of his slider and changeup. He threw his fastball a bit less and actually improved its velocity to over 85 mph. Unfortunately, for Mike, hitters began to sit on his fastball and were hammering it. According to Fangraphs, his fastball had a -16.4 run value. His curveball was -9.8. His slider was barely negative and his changeup was actually a positive.
So, just by looking at these linear weights, we can see that Maroth clearly had changed his pitch mix, and it wasn’t working.
But there WAS a positive in all of this. He only allowed a 256/.302/.405 batting line against lefties. Only 4 of the 34 home runs were against lefties. His stuff was still working on same-sided hitters.
Why is this good news? Today’s analytically minded teams would look at these numbers and say, move that kid to the bullpen and limit him against righties. Perhaps that’s what would’ve happened to him in a lot of organizations. But, the Tigers actually did something interesting. They kept him in the rotation. Even Maroth himself thought he may help the team better out of the bullpen. But the Tigers believed in him and said he was best for them in the rotation.
In a 2018 interview, Maroth reflected on what went wrong that season:
“I found myself, as I got closer, taking the approach that I was trying to avoid losing instead of going out there to win. I was almost on defense. I learned that’s not the approach I’m going to have success with.’’
Teammate Carlos Pena remembers Maroth during that season fondly:
“He was relentless with his work ethic, with his discipline,’’ Pena said. “Even when he was getting punched, he just kept on charging.’’
That determination is what got Maroth to the bigs in the first place. He wasn’t out yet. After all, FIP had him at 5.32 and expected FIP at 4.62. Yes, he had a bad year, but he wasn’t all that far off from what he’d been before.
The Tigers’ belief in him would pay off.
Mike Maroth’s Career Year: 2004
The 2004 Tigers would only win 72 games, but that’s a huge improvement. A lot of that improvement was actually thanks to Mike Maroth. In fact, he would be the team ace. Not saying that means much on a 72-win team, but he was their best pitcher.
Being a lefty who could get lefties out, Maroth was going to still have a Major League job. If he was going to stay in the rotation, Maroth knew that he needed a new weapon to keep right-handed hitters off-balance. He found one by adding a fifth pitch to his arsenal, a cutter. He threw a cut fastball only 4% of the time, but it turned out to be his only above-average pitch. It was only at the cost of a few changeups and a handful of curveballs.
Maroth increased his strikeout rate to 4.48 K/9, which would be the second highest rate of his career. His walk rate ticked up to 2.45 BB/9, but that was more than offset by the increase in strikeouts. His home run rate dropped to 1.04 HR/9.
All told, he pitched 217 innings across 33 starts with 11 wins with a 4.31 ERA. While that doesn’t sound fantastic, 2004 was a big offensive year. So, Baseball-Reference rewarded Maroth with a 3.3 WAR, an All-Star level performance. However, while FanGraphs did see 2004 as a career year, they award him with only 2.6 WAR. That’s a sizable difference! Let’s look at the underlying stats.
Besides his new cutter, all of Maroth’s pitches were below average, but not terribly so. He kept the same dominance against lefties and actually performed somewhat better against righties than usual. But he was extremely good at home, too, much as he was in his rookie year, and held his own on the road.
But was 2004 really a career year for Maroth? It was, but not by as much as Baseball-Reference WAR alone would have you believe.
In fact, FIP saw Maroth’s expected ERA to be 4.46, almost identical to his rookie year mark. His expected FIP was 4.64, nearly identical to his mark from 2003.
But with the advanced stats showing him as almost exactly the same pitcher as he was as a rookie and an unsustainably low home run rate, would he be able to keep up his success?
Eating Innings: 2005
2005 was an interesting year for Maroth. From Baseball-Reference’s standpoint, he was worth only 0.1 WAR. That’s a major step-back. But, FanGraphs has him being worth 2.0 WAR, or a league average pitcher. What is wrong with this picture?
This is why having two different versions of Wins Above Replacement is helpful. When they don’t agree, especially to this degree, there’s something worth watching.
The results for Maroth in 2005 were certainly not as good as in 2004. But he actually struck out more batters, surrendered fewer walks, and didn’t give up that many more home runs. He finished with a 4.74 ERA, which is high, but his FIP was 4.65 and his expected FIP was 4.42. From a peripheral perspective, he was still roughly the same pitcher as he was in 2004, but with a few extra home runs.
There are some underlying differences, though. He threw more cutters at the expense of his curveball. His changeup and curve were actually above-average pitchers that season and the fastball was still below-average, but the slider was better. Also, despite throwing more cutters, it wasn’t quite as effective. However, his splits against lefties and righties were about the same; actually, his strikeout rate against lefties greatly increased in 2005.
The big difference in 2005? He was below average at home and above average on the road!
Anyone who can throw 200 innings while keeping their team in the game is certainly an asset. Being a league-average pitcher isn’t exciting, but it’s not a bad thing. Honestly, looking at the advanced stats, it doesn’t look like Maroth even took a step backward.
Unfortunately, 2006 would be the beginning of the end for Maroth.
Elbow Troubles: 2006
The Detroit Tigers would actually be quite good in 2006. In fact, they even made it all the way to the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals! They would lose the series, but the fact that they got there after all those years of failure brought fresh hope to the Motor City.
Things weren’t as good for our boy, Mike, though. Maroth started off the 2006 season pretty much the same way he had the past couple of seasons. But his elbow troubled him right from the beginning. He began to give up home runs at a record pace. He would finish the season with a 1.84 HR/9 mark, although his overall results weren’t that bad. After nine starts, though, he went on the disabled list. After that, he was never the same.
When he came back from the DL, he only got into four games out of the bullpen. His strikeout rate dropped and his walk rate rose slightly. He’d finish the year with a 4.19 ERA, which looks fine on the surface. But his effectiveness against lefties was slipping and righties were hitting him almost as well as they had in 2003. So, while Baseball-Reference saw his 2006 as a 0.7 WAR performance, his 5.87 FIP and 5.22 xFIP earned him a -0.1 WAR mark from FanGraphs. He also didn’t pitch in the postseason.
Unfortunately, it was clear from his failing peripheral stats that his career was nearing an end.
Goodbye to Detroit, and the Majors: 2007
Maroth’s elbow was never the same after 2006. To say that Maroth fell apart would be a vast understatement. But Maroth’s last season in the bigs would have an interesting twist, as we’ll get to in a moment.
The Tigers followed up their World Series year with a winning one, but not nearly as good. That said, the 2007 Tigers were competitive. Despite having an ERA of 5.06 in 13 starts, Mike had a win-loss record of 5-2. He walked 33, struck out only 28, and surrendered 15 home runs in 78 ⅓ innings. Clearly, he was damaged goods at this point, but he was still “worth” 0.1 WAR, just because he really didn’t cost the Tigers very much.
While win-loss record is pretty useless when actually evaluating a pitcher’s worth, it does actually illustrate something important in this case. The Tigers really were just trying to get whatever innings from him that they could at that point. Their offense was good enough to prop him up.
So, you would think after 13 very mediocre starts, that would be it for Maroth. Right?
That’s where things got really strange. The Cardinals came calling! Yes, those same Cardinals that had beat the Tigers not even a full year before!
The Cardinals were looking for rotation help. They knew about Maroth and that he was a league average pitcher just two years earlier. While they certainly weren’t wrong about this, they seemed to think that perhaps he still had something left in the tank. After all, the Cardinals had picked up pitchers off the scrap heap before with success.
Instead, what they got was one of the saddest ends to a Major League career. Maroth was torched for a 10.66 ERA in 14 appearances, 7 of them starts. He actually struck out more batters than he walked, but he gave up 71 hits, 11 of them home runs, in only 38 innings! He was actually worse in the 7 relief appearances than in his starts. There’s no point in even looking at the advanced statistics. Maroth’s damaged elbow meant he was simply done as a productive major league pitcher.
The Cardinals gave up a player to be named later, a reliever that didn’t do much for the Tigers or anyone after that. So while the trade didn’t hurt either team in the long-term, it certainly didn’t help the Cardinals. In fact, his WAR of -2.4 with the Cardinals is really the only stat you need to put an exclamation point on how bad his season really was.
FanGraphs? They had his season as a whole being worth -1.1 WAR. That’s probably about right, because really, when you factor positive regression into stats like FIP, who can be THAT bad?
Still in Baseball: 2008-present
Even after the horror of that season, though, Maroth still attempted a comeback. He tried out in Spring Training over the next few seasons, got into some minor league games. But his elbow, and later his knee, kept him from hitting any sort of stride. He eventually decided to retire from playing for good in 2010.
But Mike didn’t leave the game. Maroth has continued to work in baseball in a variety of pitching instruction positions. In 2018, he became the pitching coach of the Florida Fire Frogs, the Single A Affiliate in the Florida State League for the Atlanta Braves. The next year, 2019, Maroth became the pitching coach for the Triple-A team for the Atlanta Braves.
All in all, Mike Maroth got to pitch six seasons in the big leagues and become a respected pitching instructor. That’s a pretty good career if you ask me!
What Can We Learn from Mike Maroth’s Career Year?
Some career years can come out of nowhere. But for Mike Maroth, his career year was just the best of four decent starting pitching seasons in the Major Leagues. You could argue that his career could’ve been more successful had he been used out of the bullpen by a more competitive team – such as the Red Sox – who would’ve limited his at-bats against right-handed batters. But playing for some really bad teams, a couple of them truly horrendous, Maroth became an innings-eater.
Being a lefty with decent breaking stuff, had he not run into elbow problems, he’d probably pitched for many more years. But Maroth actually had the stuff of a league-average starting pitcher. With some better luck and better defenses behind him, his career numbers would look far better than they do. FanGraphs with their FIP-based WAR measures probably gives a much better impression of how good he actually was.
Without a doubt, 2004 was Maroth’s best year, but it wasn’t all that different than his 2002 and 2005 seasons. It’s sad that he played for some truly forgettable teams. To see a good team like the Cardinals take a chance on him just shows how much respect the crafty lefty had within the game.
What Could’ve Been for Mike Maroth
What if the Red Sox had never traded Mike Maroth in the first place? Besides probably never putting Bryce Florie in the position to get hit in the face with a batted ball, his career would’ve been very different. It’s likely he would’ve become a swingman, as in someone who pitches primarily out of the bullpen, but makes spot starts when needed.
The analytically-minded Sox probably would’ve tossed him out there as a sixth starter against lefty-heavy lineups and as a sort of lefty specialist who could pitch to multiple batters. It’s likely that he would’ve been even more valuable as a reliever/spot starter.
But as it turned out, the Tigers actually needed Maroth. He actually led their pitching staff in 2004. Maroth was a great teammate and his determination was likely an inspiration for many of his teammates. Now, he’s helping young pitchers rehab from their own injuries and develop their own skills. So, as things worked out, while his MLB career had a disappointing end, Mike Maroth had a career worth remembering.
Mike Maroth is living proof that you can have an 85 mph fastball and an array of breaking stuff and be a roughly league average pitcher for six years in the majors. That’s nothing to sneeze at, for sure.