I may have struggled with Rick’s ranking even more than Glenn Hubbard’s. The raw numbers say that he was an average or slightly below-average pitcher for the bulk of his Braves career. His ERA is worse than the league average, but that’s park effects; adjust for that, and it’s average. He didn’t strike a lot of people out and thus allowed a lot of balls in play. Considering the defense behind him, that was not ideal. I expect that the two thoughts that crossed Mahler’s mind most when he was on the mound in those years were “Please hit it to Hubbard” and “How did he drop that?”
Rick was signed as an undrafted free agent out of Trinity University in 1975. He dominated the low minors but ran into a speedbump in Richmond in 1977. He righted the ship and spent the next three years pitching the International League to a standstill with only 15 relief appearances in the majors in 1979 and two in 1980 to show for it. Bobby finally gave him a full chance in 1981 and he responded by going 8-6 with a 2.80 ERA, pitching both relief and in the rotation.
Rick wasn’t as good in 1982 and wound up spending most of 1983 back in Richmond. From 1984 to 1988 he was the workhorse of the big league staff. He pitched very well in the first two years, a combined 30-25 with a 3.32 ERA (well below the league considering the park). The team collapsed anyway, and Mahler had a rough time the next two seasons, even falling out of the rotation in 1987. He rebounded some in 1988, putting up an ERA right about the average, but that team was so bad he went 9-16 anyway. He left as a free agent after the season, but was more or less washed up. After a couple of seasons in Cincinnati and a half season with the Expos, he was released.
The Braves brought Mahler back (middle of a pennant drive, though nobody quite believed that in June of 1991) but he really had nothing left. Mostly he pitched relief, but did make two starts. In one of them, against the Pirates on July 29, he went six innings, allowed two runs, and got the win. But he wiped out in his second start, against the Giants, and that was the last appearance of his career.
So, how does he rank? Hard to say. He pitched a lot of innings for the Braves. Only four men (you probably know who) have pitched more for the team since 1966. On the other hand, those innings were largely piled into a five-year stretch where the team went 341-465, so what good were they? He wasn’t an ace, really, he was just the best that they had. The only positive category in which he ever led the league was starts, twice. On the other hand, he led the league in hits allowed four times, earned runs allowed twice, and losses once.
I tend to think that given a real defense behind him, Rick Mahler would have won a lot of games. The Braves’ defense was very bad, and he was a guy who needed a good defense. In a way, it’s surprising that he did as well as he did. Tom Glavine couldn’t have won with the defense Mahler had to work with. In point of fact, he didn’t; he only became Tom Glavine when they were replaced with real infielders. Think on it: if Mahler could put up average ERAs with Bob Horner, Ken Oberkfell, and the Dysfunctional Duo (Ramirez and Thomas) behind him, what could he have done with Lemke and Pendleton?
But in the end, he didn’t get that chance, and with the hand he was dealt he was ordinary. At any rate, I still don’t really know where to rank him. It’s possible that he really doesn’t belong, but I just couldn’t see it.