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June 22, 2010

Checking the Numbers

No Longer the Maine Man

by Eric Seidman

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On September 29, 2007, I bore witness to a very impressive feat attributable predominantly to John Maine of the New York Mets. Sneaking away while attending the sweet sixteen of my girlfriend’s sister, I stumbled upon a room showing both the Phillies vs. Nationals and the Mets vs. Marlins telecasts. For those in need of a refresher, the Phillies had clawed their way back from seven games behind with 17 to play and held a one-game lead in the National League East with just two to play. They would send Adam Eaton to the mound in a pivotal game. The Mets were relying upon the aforementioned Maine. The outcome of Eaton’s outing should surprise nobody, while Maine allowed just one hit over 7 2/3 innings, striking out 14 hitters in the process, and sending the Mets into a tie for the division lead entering the last day of the season.

Fast forward to May 20, 2010, and I bore witness to a very awkward situation, as Maine was lifted from his regularly-scheduled start against the Nationals after throwing five pitches and walking the leadoff hitter. On top of the rather odd hook, reliever Raul Valdes was warming up in the bullpen as the game began, leaving many to wonder why the confused and steaming angry pitcher was allowed to toe the rubber in the first place. The decision was based upon Jerry Manuel’s and Dan Warthen’s joint concern over his health and ability to compete; the latter mentioned that Maine had bounced half of his warm-up pitches and was struggling to crack 80 mph in the bullpen.

Suffice to say, the Maine that tossed the gem back at the tail end of the 2007 season—or even some semblance of that pitcher—is nowhere near the Maine that was being given the ball every fifth day this season before being sent to the disabled list. And while he might be able to turn things around and rebound, it is my contention that said rebounding should not occur while wearing a New York Mets uniform.

The Situation

The Mets are currently in the midst of a torrid streak during which their hitting, fielding, and pitching are all exceeding expectations and producing at high levels. In the starting rotation, the quintet of Johan Santana, Jonathon Niese, Mike Pelfrey, R.A. Dickey, and Hisanori Takahashi has been on a gravy train with biscuit wheels lately, with each pitcher seemingly trying to out-duel he who pitched most recently. Since May 30, here is what the post-Maine and post-Oliver Perez rotation has done:

NAME

IP

K/BB

Strike%

RA

Jonathon Niese

23.0

5.00

.679

1.56

Mike Pelfrey

30.2

2.13

.655

3.00

Hisanori Takahashi

22.1

1.57

.634

4.84

R.A. Dickey

26.1

4.40

.667

3.42

Johan Santana

26.1

0.67

.627

4.05


Maine, in nine starts this season, has a 6.13 ERA and is walking batters at Perez-ian levels. Even though the samples in the table above are small—and that is to say that in no way are Dickey nor Takahashi going to finish the season with mid-2 ERAs—the only aspect of Maine’s game that might suggest he should be slotted back into the rotation upon a clean bill of health is his contract. For a team with a somewhat serious shot at vying for a playoff berth, the $3.3 million owed to the disgruntled pitcher this season is not reason enough to simply give him another shot.

What Do We Know About Maine?

According to several different Mets writers, the problems with Maine, aside from those related to his health, can be traced directly back to his chief offering, the fastball. He throws it a lot. I mean, a lot. Since becoming a regular in the rotation, he has thrown the heater around 70 percent of the time, a mark that helped him put up solid numbers in 2006-07 when he threw 93-95 mph, but which is causing him statistical grief nowadays due to a substantial downturn in velocity. No, the success of a fastball is not 100 percent contingent upon velocity, but when a pitcher drops from 94 mph to 88 mph and still throws the pitch at the same frequency, well, The Rock would raise The People’s Eyebrow. Add to this stew the fact that Maine’s worst skill as a major leaguer is control—in fact, it isn’t a skill, because he’s never had much control—and the eyebrows rise even higher.

He has lost velocity, has been inching ever so closely toward Perez levels of control, and yet has continued to throw the fastball. Without decent secondary offerings—his changeup is viewed as more of a ‘show-me’ pitch and the breaking ball is rather generic—there is very little in his repertoire to intimidate hitters. They don’t have to chase pitches out of the zone, and if he leaves one over the plate, then fans at Citi Field will be quickly throwing it back onto the field. These problems are not new, but are exacerbated by his injuries, which have made the situation even worse.

Speaking of the injuries—they have been pretty serious. At the end of the 2008 season, one in which he had to deal with some rotator cuff problems, Maine underwent shoulder surgery. The operating doctors were left to wonder how he was even able to pitch, as the bone spur they removed was the largest they had ever seen. He then spent most of the 2009 season on the disabled list due to arm fatigue.

In fact, if you take a minute and click on the link on his name at the top of this article and scroll down to the comments from BP annuals over the past three years, you will see how common of an occurrence his trips to the disabled list have become. And while my goal is not to kick a guy when he is down—I can certainly empathize with his supposed “habitual lying” when it comes to his health given how frustrating the frequent turn of events must be—the Mets are going to have to make a decision in the very near future, and Maine is going to factor into that decision in quite the large fashion.

What to Do With Maine?

As I see it, the Mets have two options: designate Maine for assignment and hope that at least one willing taker emerges, or put him in the bullpen. The first option makes sense from the standpoint that he has no spot in the starting rotation and is as sure to be non-tendered as any bet made after reading Gray’s Almanac. By designating him for assignment, the team could see if anyone else is willing to either trade some type of relief pitching prospect, or if they are willing to simply absorb his salary for the remainder of the season. While the Mets are in no way penny-pinchers, getting unused liabilities off the books is rarely a negative.

With regards to sticking Maine in the bullpen, consider that aside from Francisco Rodriguez and Pedro Feliciano, the relief corps consists of an Elmer Dessens that a great many thought retired years ago, a junkballing Valdes, hard-throwing but no-control question marks in Bobby Parnell and Fernando Nieve, and Ryota Igarashi, who has quality secondary offerings but also offers little in the control department. Would Maine really be a worse option than any of the non-K-Rod or Feliciano hurlers? Given that the health concerns would likely preclude a team from absorbing his salary or taking him on—and even if they did, they would then non-tender him at year’s end—Maine is likely to turn out to be a sunk cost this year. Trying him in the bullpen couldn’t hurt.

If you were Omar Minaya or in the Mets' front office—and neither a writer trying to get a job with the team nor a maniac who rips his shirt off—what would your recommendation or plan of action look like given the presented facts and figures?

Special thanks to Will Davidian of blueandorange.net, Sagiv Edelman of FireJerryManuel, and Tom Pich of Mets Guide for their insights into the situation.

Eric Seidman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Eric's other articles. You can contact Eric by clicking here

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