June 20, 2007
Originally thought to be a card-carrying member of the Josh Towers Nibbler Club, John Maine has done well for himself in his time as a New York Met. Thanks to Pedro Martinez' rehabilitation and inconsistency from Tom Glavine, Maine and teammate Oliver Perez have been fighting for the title of Mets' ace, at least in terms of performance if not reputation. With a low BABIP a key to his success, how sustainable is Maine's performance?
John Maine attended the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, with one excellent and one poor season. He left the college as its all-time win leader, despite getting drafted before his senior year, and after a poor performance as a junior:
Year Team IP K/9 BB/9 K/BB HR/9 H/9 RA 2001 UNC-Charlt(NCAA) 134.0 9.7 3.6 2.7 0.7 7.9 4.30 2002 UNC-Charlt(NCAA) 94.0 9.9 4.5 2.2 0.9 9.6 6.22
Maine was named Conference USA Pitcher of the Year and a Conference USA All-Star starting pitcher in 2001. The Orioles selected him #166 overall in the sixth round of the 2002 amateur entry draft. He signed the next month, and was assigned to Low-A Aberdeen in the New York-Penn League:
Year Team IP K/9 BB/9 K/BB HR/9 H/9 RA 2002 Aberdeen(A-) 10.1 18.3 2.6 7.0 0.0 5.2 1.74 2002 Delmarva(A) 33.0 10.6 1.1 9.8 0.0 5.7 2.18
It's only a 44.1 inning sample, but Maine owned Single-A, striking out 12.2 K/9 while giving up just seven walks and no home runs. You have to love that kind of immediate showing out of a sixth-round pick, but the Orioles nevertheless left Maine at Delmarva to start the 2003 season so as not to rush him too much. After all, Maine had fallen in the draft due to his poor 2002 showing at UNC-Charlotte, but he was listed as the eighth-best prospect in the Orioles organization by Baseball America heading into 2003:
The Orioles have brought in an intriguing group of college arms in the last few years, and Maine has the best raw stuff of the group. His fastball sits at 92-93 mph and can go higher, and he throws it with great sink. He also has a hard slider that's a great pitch when it's on. Maine has a big, loose frame, and he runs into problems when his mechanics get out of whack. His long arm action in college worried scouts and gave him command problems, but the Orioles say they haven't seen that from him as a pro. He needs to work on a changeup.
Baseball Prospectus 2003 tried to explain why Maine may have struggled during his junior year:
He had to work hard to get there: 134 innings, 144 strikeouts and 53 walks made the national (and not just conference) leaderboards, and a rough estimate from his stat line numbers suggests that he averaged over 100 pitches per start. Yes, we like to say that's a little rough for a 20-year old.
Maine would split 2003 between Delmarva in the Sally League and High-A Frederick of the Carolina League:
Year Team IP K/9 BB/9 K/BB HR/9 H/9 RA 2003 Delmarva(A) 76.1 12.7 2.1 6.0 0.1 6.1 1.89 2003 Frederick(A+) 70.1 9.6 2.6 3.9 0.6 5.1 3.47
Maine's strikeout and walk rates were excellent again, and even though he started to give up homers, there was no one on base to score most of the time. One thing to take from Maine's early seasons in the minors are his low hit rates; more important to Maine's success than his high strikeout rates or his low walk totals has been his ability to keep batters from reaching base via hit. This oftentimes led to the comparisons to Josh Towers--who was also a member of the O's organization at the time--but it was also unfair given his ability to strike out hitters when he needed to. It is a trait that has carried over to the major leagues, even when his very lofty strikeout totals did not.
Maine led the minors in strikeouts and opponent average (.177) in 2003. In his second Class A start, he threw a seven-inning no hitter against Winston-Salem and came within a hit batter of a perfect game. Maine's best pitch is a 90-92 mph fastball. He already has major league command of his heater and is able to throw it to both sides of the plate as well as up and down. His fastball also has great life, and the deception in his delivery makes it look even faster. Maine can strike hitters out with his fastball alone, and he threw it 75-90 percent of the time before 2003. He employed his curveball and changeup more last year, though he still needs to use and command them better. Maintaining consistent mechanics is a key.
Baseball Prospectus 2004 hit the caution button with Maine, giving thought to comparable players from the South Atlantic and Midwest League in previous years:
Maine's run through the low minors was so staggeringly good, despite not having knock-scouts-over-with-feathers-stuff, that some prospect mavens are falling over themselves to tell you how he's not as good as his stats. There may be something to that. Maine was a little old for the South Atlantic League, and while no 22-year-old of recent vintage has matched his performance in that or the comparable Midwest League, the ones who came closest (Adam Walker, Britt Reames, Denny Stark, Matt Smith, all a long way behind Maine's performance) have had less than inspiring later careers. So despite a league-leading 185 strikeouts and a career .176 batting average hit against him, keep the hype in reserve. If he makes a strong run through Double-A in '04, start getting excited.
Maine's numbers from the low minors have more to do with overmatching young and inexperienced hitters than with Maine's future MLB performance. Of course Maine wasn't as good as his stats, but the scouting reports said that he already had major league-level command of his fastball. Maine would be given the chance to prove his critics right or wrong in 2004, when he split the season between Double-A Bowie and Triple-A Ottawa:
Year Team IP K/9 BB/9 K/BB HR/9 H/9 RA 2004 Bowie(2A) 28.0 10.9 2.3 4.9 0.3 5.1 2.57 2004 Ottawa(3A) 119.2 7.9 3.9 2.0 0.9 9.3 4.45
Maine continued to destroy hitters even after the Double-A promotion, so the Orioles quickly shuttled him up to Triple-A to see what they had. This is the first time Maine had struggled for a significant length of time since his junior year in college, with his strikeouts dropping while his walks, homers allowed, and hits allowed all increased. Maine is known for his low opponent batting averages, brought on by his low BABIP figures. After a .261 BABIP in his short time at Bowie, he saw it jump to .341 at Ottawa, well above the league average.
The O's decided to keep Maine at Ottawa again for the 2005 season in order to gauge his improvement. Now that he was facing more experienced hitters, Maine would have to adjust his game instead of relying on his polish and command to get him through like it had in the past. Baseball America moved him down to #6 overall in the O's system, saying:
He struggled in his first two months at Ottawa (4.99 ERA) but started to come around afterward (2.89 ERA)...Maine succeeds more with command than pure stuff. He added a slider to give him four pitches, along with his fastball, curveball and changeup. He throws 90-91 mph with natural deception, and adds and subtracts from his fastball nicely. He's not afraid to work inside. None of Maine's pitches is overwhelming, which explains why he struggles when he moves up to a new level. He also needs to refine his command and throw quality strikes after learning that advanced hitters lay off of balls out of the zone.
Maine would spend time with both Ottawa and Baltimore in 2005 with poor results. Based on his numbers at Triple-A, he had not adjusted fully to the more advanced hitters as of yet, but Baltimore called him up to start eight games anyway, with predictable results:
Year Team IP K/9 BB/9 K/BB HR/9 H/9 RA 2005 Ottawa(3A) 128.1 7.8 3.0 2.6 0.9 9.0 5.06 2005 Baltimore(MLB) 40.0 5.4 5.4 1.0 1.8 8.8 8.78
Looking at his Run Average and only slightly improved peripherals from Ottawa, it's not shocking to see Maine get the stuffing beat out of him in the majors. His home run rate doubled, his walk rates soared, and his strikeout rates dropped. His Peripheral ERA of 6.58 was better than his RA, but that isn't saying much. The O's were given a chance to trade Maine for an established major leaguer in Kris Benson, and they took it, sending Maine to the National League. Baseball Prospectus 2006 discussed Maine's issues moving to the major leagues:
Maine is similar to [Rodrigo] Lopez, in the sense of being an extremely location-dependent pitcher. He doesn't have the gas to challenge everybody who comes up, and in his brief calls to the majors he's tried to cut it too fine. When you nibble and miss, you have to come in and take your lumps. He was far more overpowering in the low minors, and if he can adapt in the same way that Josh Towers has, he'll be useful at the back end of a big league rotation.
Maine's BABIP was pretty good in 2005, at just .259. Everything else went to hell in his peripherals, but hitters didn't beat him around too badly outside of the home runs. Maine was his own worst enemy for the most part, and he would have to overcome that in order to succeed past Double-A. His third go-around in Triple-A was his best, this time for Norfolk in the Mets system, before he was called up to replace the injured Brian Bannister in the rotation:
Year Team IP K/9 BB/9 K/BB HR/9 H/9 RA 2006 Norfolk(3A) 56.2 7.6 3.2 2.4 0.3 8.7 4.00 2006 New York(MLB) 90.0 7.1 3.3 2.2 1.5 6.9 4.00
Maine went down with a finger injury early on, but came back in July with a rotation spot waiting for him. The good news--and this is important considering Maine's prior successes--is that his H/9 dropped down to 6.9, even with all the bombs in the bleachers. His PERA was 4.82, so Maine was over his head by a run and a half or so, but he no longer looked like the overmatched nibbler from the season before. He would need to fix his problems with allowing homers if he was to be more successful, but this looked like a good first step towards a major league career. Yes, his .225 BABIP helped, but he now had some breathing room.
This success has carried over to 2007, including the low BABIP but not featuring a much improved home run rate:
Maine has started to keep batters off the basepaths via hits, but he's still giving up a lot of free passes. He's held opponents to a .222/.305/.356 line this season, and in his 178 innings as a Met has only allowed a .217/.296/.378 line total. There are a few reasons for this that we can glean from his batted-ball data:
Year P/PA FB% LINERD% GB% IF/F% HR/F% BABIP eBABIP Diff. 2005 4.0 33.6% 20.9% 45.5% 20.0% 17.8% .259 .329 +.070 2006 4.1 47.0% 15.4% 37.5% 14.3% 12.6% .228 .274 +.046 2007 4.0 44.9% 18.5% 36.6% 13.8% 8.3% .260 .305 +.045
Maine is an extreme flyball pitcher now, which carries some negative connotations, but plenty of positives with the proper context. For negatives, you have a high home run rate, but for positives, your BABIP is more likely than not going to be much lower than if you give up a lot of liners or grounders. Add in excellent outfield defense behind Maine for much of his time as a Met and a forgiving park. Prior to this season, the park factor for Shea on homers was well below neutral for both right-handed and lefty batters. Maine isn't entirely a product of Shea though--his .199/.283/.364 opponent line on the road is a hair better than his home line of .229/.305/.387. He forces hitters to pop out weakly often, has an above-average strikeout rate, and doesn't allow many hitters on base, keeping the potential problems from a high home run rate at a distance. Despite walk rates between three and four per nine innings pitched, Maine's WHIP for the Mets is just 1.19.
It seems as if Maine has finally figured out how to pitch to advanced hitters, despite never really putting it together at Triple-A. He does not have the sky-high strikeout rates from his time in the low minors--nor should he, considering why he had those in the first place--but he has managed to bring his low hit rates with him to the majors. He will be interesting to watch for the next few years as he attempts to keep his BABIP far enough below the league average to remain an effective starter. As 2007 proves, he's capable of doing just that.