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John Maine, “Habitual Liar” About Health, May Retire

On Monday, John Maine left the Triple-A Colorado Springs Sky Sox, after posting a 7.43 ERA in 46 innings. Technically, he’s trying to come back from a 2010 shoulder surgery which was intended to deal with a shoulder problem that dated back to at least 2008, when they found a bone spur. But Maine has been injured for most of the last three years. In his career, he has never pitched 200 innings, and only once pitched more than 140 — his first and only full season in the majors, 2007 with the Mets, when he won 15 games with a FIP of 4.18 in 191 innings. Since then, he has been placed on the DL three times for injuries to his rotator cuff and shoulder, and had shoulder surgery in 2008 and again in 2010. He is considering retirement. But even if he decides to continue his comeback attempt, it is likely that the bulk of his major league career is behind him.

At his peak, Maine had a fastball that touched 95 miles an hour, which he supplemented with a changeup and slider that were approximately eight miles slower, the same velocity but different spin. It was perhaps ironic that he was swapped for Kris Benson, because they were somewhat similar pitchers: 6’4″ right-handers who threw over the top, fastball-slider pitchers who worked in the low- to mid-90s, and who saw their careers derailed by injury.

A product of UNC-Charlotte, John Maine quickly flourished in Baltimore’s system, reaching the major leagues for the first time just two years after being drafted in the sixth round of the 2002 draft. He dominated Low-A ball in his first 10 innings after the draft — 21 strikeouts, three walks, and just two runs allowed in 10 1/3 innings of work — so the O’s moved him up to Class A Delmarva for the rest of the year. The following year his ascent continued, moving up to High-A Frederick in the middle of the year.

In 2004 he started out by dominating in Double-A Bowie, but Triple-A Ottawa was the first struggle of his professional career. His control slipped and his ERA ballooned from 2.25 in Bowie to 3.91 in Ottawa; his first cup of coffee came in a July spot start, but he was terrible, giving up four runs in 3 2/3 innings in his first major league start. Baseball America and John Sickels both ranked him as the Orioles’ 6th-best prospect. But his Orioles career was nearly over. Sent back to Ottawa in 2005, his control was better but his ERA increased even further to 4.56. The Orioles decided to cut bait. In January 2006, they packaged him with closer Jorge Julio — who had lost his job in 2005 despite collecting 83 saves from 2002-2004 — and shipped him to New York for Benson. Maine spent the first half of the season in Norfolk, then wasted little time making his mark in Queens, making 15 starts and posting a 3.60 ERA.

Until the injuries to his rotator cuff and shoulder ended his 2008 and ruined his effectiveness, Maine pitched well over a little more than two full seasons in New York. (He certainly produced a great deal more value after the trade than Benson, who put up a 4.82 FIP in 2006 for the Orioles, then got injured and didn’t pitch again until 2009.) Maine outperformed his components by a fair piece — his 3.94 ERA from 2006-2008 is nearly half a run lower than his 4.40 FIP or 4.33 xFIP — but he contributed 4.7 WAR in just 420 innings, which is basically two above-average seasons worth of innings spread over three years. Since 2008, he has had two shoulder surgeries and has pitched 121 innings with a 4.98 ERA.

Maine’s body betrayed him, but by the end of his career in New York, it’s clear the team felt betrayed, too. “John’s a habitual liar in a lot of ways as far as his own health,” Mets pitching coach Dan Warthen said last year. Both Maine and the team seemed to underestimate or underreport the extent of the damage in his arm. In 2009, Dr. James Andrews diagnosed him with “weakness” in the shoulder; Mike Pelfrey admitted that the team had had to talk to Maine about his tolerance for pain. Maine certainly wasn’t one to complain to the press. Instead, Maine said things like: “It’s nothing serious… My shoulder is just fatigued. It’s dead.” That was in 2009, after coming back from the 2008 surgery. And last April, he said, “My arm feels fine. My shoulder feels fine.” He went on the DL with a shoulder injury a month later, and he hasn’t pitched in the major leagues since then.

Pain tolerance is a tricky issue in baseball. Warthen’s full comment was a bit more sympathetic to Maine:

If he’s throwing that way, then there’s got to be something incorrect in that arm… Something’s not feeling correct. John’s a habitual liar in a lot of ways as far as his own health. He’s a competitor and a warrior. He wants to go out there and pitch. But we have to be smart enough to realize this guy isn’t right, the ball’s not coming out of his hand correctly.

The team understood that Maine wanted to pitch and be healthy enough to help his club. The desire for players to return quickly is strongly ingrained in baseball culture, and when players don’t heal quickly, players can be dogged by suspicion that they’re not making a full effort to return to their team as quickly as possible, from Carl Pavano to Jason Heyward. But this can obviously be counterproductive, especially when it causes players to exacerbate damage that has not been allowed to heal. It’s impossible to know for sure whether John Maine might have been doomed to early retirement no matter how much he babied his arm. And it’s impossible to know how the Mets’ apparent inability to keep players healthy, as Eno Sarris wrote today, may have factored in. But it’s hard not to believe that his unwillingness to admit how much it hurt made a bad situation worse.

John Maine’s career provides an interesting counterpoint to the discussion a month ago surrounding Buster Posey‘s season-ending injury and Billy Beane’s edict that catcher Kurt Suzuki should try to avoid putting himself in harm’s way, and baseball’s groundbreaking decision to create a DL for concussions. The desire to risk pain for your teammates is a noble instinct, but actual injury can actually hurt a team’s chances of winning. If Maine could have felt comfortable to admit when his arm wasn’t right, he would have avoided a lot of hard feelings with the Mets. He might have even been able to stay on the field longer.