John Maine has simply been sensational in the first month of the season, posting a miniscule 1.35 ERA in 33.1 innings over his first five starts. Maine has also gone at least seven innings in four of those starts, an improvement on last season when he averaged less than six innings per start. Basically, despite very good starts from veterans Tom Glavine and Orlando Hernandez, Maine has been the Mets’ ace so far this season.
Including what he did for the Mets last season, John Maine is now 10-5 with a 2.99 ERA in 20 starts and one relief appearance. Considering that Maine will turn 26 years old on May 8TH, I should be very optimistic about his future as a frontline starter for the Mets. Yet despite the fact that Maine has done nothing but pitch well for the Mets, I continue to worry that he is about to be exposed.
John Maine has good stuff. He has an above average fastball that is usually in the 91-93 MPH range and a solid repertoire of off-speed and breaking stuff. Now, many pitchers have had great careers with stuff no better than what Maine brings to the mound. I’m not surprised that Maine has had success. It’s just the way that he is doing it that makes me concerned about his future.
Most pitchers with good but not overwhelming stuff who are able to be successful at the big league level do so even though they allow their fair share of hits because they limit the number of walks they give up. Maine doesn’t pitch that way. As a Met he has walked 10.0 percent of the batters he has faced. For comparison’s sake, Victor Zambrano walked 10.4% of the batters he faced. Maine also allows his fair share of home runs although the cold weather has helped him so far this season in that particular area.
Maine has struck batters out at a more than respectable rate as a Met, whiffing 20.3% of the batters he has faced (Javier Vazquez has struck out 20.5% in his career) and that has helped him be successful. That said, the number one reason why has thrived as a Met so far is because he has been very, very difficult to hit. In fact, Maine has only allowed hits to 17.5% of the batters he has faced as a Met. That simply is an incredible mark when you consider the fact that Nolan Ryan, a guy with phenomenal stuff who tried to throw a no-hitter every time he made a start, allowed hits to 17.4 percent of the batters he faced in his career.
Maine’s amazingly low hit rate can possibly be attributed to quite a bit of luck. Maine’s BABIP (batting average on balls in play) is a ridiculously low .213 as a Met. I don’t think there’s anyway it’s going to stay that low. That being said, I think the time has come to ask how much of Maine’s BABIP is luck and how much of it is performance.
Met fans are blessed to have two really intelligent former players, Ron Darling and Keith Hernandez, call their games, and I found it interesting that they compared Maine to former Met Sid Fernandez. Like Maine, Fernandez was also a very tough guy to hit despite lacking overwhelming stuff, and many people, including Darling and Hernandez, have attributed Fernandez’s stinginess to his odd pitching motion.
I’m not going to pretend that I know enough about mechanics to talk about Maine’s motion, but during more than one telecast, I have heard analysts say that Maine’s gangly arms and the late movement on his fastball make him more difficult to hit. It certainly seems possible that Maine’s motion and stuff make it hard for opponents to make solid contact and that’s the real reason why he is so hard to hit.
Although I don’t know enough to dissect Maine’s mechanics, I do know enough to look at Maine’s previous performance to see if this ability is something he has shown in the past. After being drafted by the Orioles in the 6th round of the 2002 amateur draft, Maine rocketed through Baltimore’s system as he completely dominated the lower levels of the minor leagues. Here are the numbers that Maine put up in the low minors at 4 different levels:
218.0 IP, 2.11 ERA, 11.52 K/9, 5.37 K/BB, 134 hits.
Now, it’s hard to find data regarding BABIP in the minor leagues but a rough estimate would be about .260. I wouldn’t put too much weight into those numbers because Maine was simply more talented than the vast majority of the players he was facing. After his domination of the lower minor league levels, Maine wasn’t that great in AAA where he spent most of 2004-2006.
304.2 IP, 4.11 ERA, 7.62 K/9, 2.32 K/BB, 306 hits.
While Maine’s numbers weren’t awful, they indicated that John’s upside wasn’t quite as high his performance in the lower minors suggested. More important to this particular discussion, Maine’s BABIP was about .300 which is right around the Major League average.
Maine’s BABIP in his short time at the big league level as an Oriole was .264, which while low, is certainly not exceedingly so especially when you consider that Maine threw fewer than 45 innings as an Oriole.
Looking at his previous performance in the minor leagues (both as an Oriole and Met farmhand), Maine has basically never shown the ability to post an abnormally low BABIP.
I’m not a guy who lives and dies with stats when it comes to baseball and I’m more than willing to admit that some guys are special cases and that numbers can’t capture everything. That being said, I need a lot of evidence to believe that a guy has bucked a trend that baseball analysts have shown to be true in most cases.
Prior to this season, I was willing to say that Maine’s BABIP was a fluke and that’s why all I was expecting from him was a 4.25-4.50 ERA. There was nothing in Maine’s history that suggested that he was atypical in this regard. Now, I wonder if there’s something about Maine’s pitching that makes it more difficult for hitters to make good contact against him. That’s not to say that I expect his BABIP to remain in the low .200 range. There’s no question in my mind that it will rise as the season progresses. The question is how high that number will reach, because the answer to that question may tell us a lot about what type of pitcher we can expect Maine to become and how far the Mets will go this season.