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John Maine’s Slow Fastball, Quick Hook

Last night, New York Mets starter John Maine toed the rubber at Nationals Park. Washington leadoff hitter Nyjer Morgan stepped into the box. Maine tossed an 85 MPH fastball high. Ball one. An 83 MPH offering with a little more tail missed on the outside corner. Ball two. Morgan squared to bunt on a fastball inside at 85, but thought better of it and pulled back. Ball three. Morgan showed bunt on another 85 MPH fastball but let it go by for a strike. Yet another 85 MPH fastball missed inside, and Morgan scampered to first base.

Maine slumped forward, hands on his knees, as Mets manager Jerry Manuel, pitching coach Dan Warthen and trainer Ray Ramirez walked to the mound. Manuel signaled for the lefty, Raul Valdes. And just like that, Maine’s night was over.

According to ESPNNewYork’s Adam Rubin, Manuel said after the game that he was “trying to protect his [Maine’s] best interests,” and he doesn’t “want to be responsible for a young man’s career.” Warthen said, “John’s a habitual liar in a lot of ways as far as his own health. He’s a competitor and a warrior and he wants to go out there and pitch. But you have to be smart enough to realize this guy isn’t right.” Maine, meanwhile, was peeved: “Look, I’ve felt pain for two years, but I’m over that…I don’t care about that. I’m well enough to pitch. I wanted to pitch. That’s the bottom line.”

The 29-year-old right-hander has dealt with a series of injury problems over the past three seasons. He was placed on the DL in August of 2008 with a right rotator cuff strain, returned to make three starts and was then shut down. In late September of ’08, he underwent surgery to remove a large bone spur from his right shoulder. Last year, he spent three months on the DL with right shoulder weakness. This year, Maine has battled left elbow soreness.

Maine, who’s scheduled to examined by doctors today, says he’s healthy enough to pitch. But whatever is ailing him, it’s clear that his performance is suffering.

From 2006-2008, Maine posted a 4.41 expected FIP (xFIP). He struck out 7.97 batters per nine innings, while issuing 3.74 BB/9. He had a 38.3 percent ground ball rate and a 43.4 percent fly ball rate. Maine’s average fastball velocity was 91 MPH in 2006, 91.2 MPH in 2007 and 92.1 MPH in 2008.

Unfortunately, Maine’s 2009 and 2010 showings look good only in comparison to those of Oliver Perez. He threw 81.1 frames in ’09, with 6.09 K/9, 4.2 BB/9 and a 5.09 xFIP. His already-low ground ball rate fell to 35.1 percent, and his fly ball rate climbed to 43.7 percent.

This season, Maine is missing more lumber (8.85 K/9), but he hasn’t been able to locate (5.67 BB/9). Getting grounders just 26.5 percent of the time and allowing fly balls 52.1 percent, Maine has a 5.29 xFIP in 39.2 innings. He’s giving up 1.82 home runs per nine innings. Maine’s home run/fly ball rate (13.1%) might fall a bit, but he’s got the lowest rate of grounders and the third-highest rate of fly balls among starters with at least 30 innings pitched. With those numbers, homers are going to be a problem.

Take a look at his heater velocity since those injury problems started cropping up:

Maine’s overall fastball velocity in 2009 was 91.3 MPH. However, that figure declined directly before his June DL stint and after he returned in September. Maine averaged 91.7 MPH in April, 91.4 MPH in May and 90.4 MPH during his one June start. In three September starts and one October start, he averaged 90.6 MPH.

This year, Maine (throwing his fastball three-quarters of the time) is sitting just 88.6 MPH. During his big league career, he has a +0.26 run value per 100 pitches with the fastball. In 2010, however, it has been hammered for -0.85 runs per 100 thrown. Of course, that’s actually better than his changeup (-2.17) and slider (-3.89).

While his 77.9 percent contact rate bests the 80.9 percent MLB average and he’s getting swings on pitches outside of the strike zone 28.1 percent (27.5 percent MLB average), Maine hasn’t been able to throw strikes consistently. Just 45.7 percent of his pitches have been within the zone, which is two percentage points below the big league average. All three of his pitches have below-average strike rates: 61.4 for the fastball (64.4 MLB average), 57.4 for the changeup (60.7) and 55.3 for the slider (63.4).

It’s no surprise that a starter, lobbing high-80’s fastballs with spotty control and a sky-high fly ball rate, is getting throttled. Hopefully, Maine and the Mets can find the root cause of his struggles.

Injury info from the Baseball Injury Tool