John Maine: Split the Difference?
What a difference a year makes … this time last year, John Maine was considered a bust by the Baltimore Orioles, and being shopped around as a throw-in as “Genius Jim” Duquette tried to make his team less competitive and more expensive — not an easy thing to accomplish (though he did have experience with that in Flushing).
Even after Maine was shipped to New York, little was expected from him. Most figured he’d fill out the roster in AAA, maybe get a few spot starts if there were some injuries.
Today, John Maine is more or less expected to take hold of the #3 spot in the Mets’ 2007 rotation … quite a bit to put on a young man’s shoulders. The Mets, fans, and pundits justify their expectations based on a string of successful starts from July 21 through the NLCS in October. Indeed, Maine proved that he could pitch under playoff pressure, and he showed that he had a good moving, Major League-caliber fastball.
However, he’s far from being a #3 at this point in his career — at least, based on his 2006 skillset. After his fastball, his repertoire is mediocre to below average on most nights. While there were at least two magical nights (back-to-back starts on July 21 and 26) when he had his offspeed pitches working well, he often struggled during the opposing lineup’s third time around. Willie Randolph and Rick Peterson were quick to realize this, and usually rescued him before the breakdown began. However, that strategy resulted in bullpen-taxing, five-inning and six-inning starts. In fact, Maine did not pitch more than six innings in one game after July 26. Further, the postseason heroics that everyone gets excited about, were actually two four-inning performances and one five-inning outing — back in the day, that was considered “getting knocked out early”.
A solid, six-inning starter is exactly what a team needs at the back-end of their rotation. Unfortunately, the Mets need Maine to be a middle-of-the-rotation guy. Maine’s current supporting arsenal — a below-average changeup, big slow curve, and inconsistent slider — will not help him progress.
However, a split-fingered fastball / forkball, might.
While struggling to get downward movement on his change-up in August of last year, Rick Peterson suggested to Maine that he try a forkball. Maine tinkered with the pitch through September and may have used it a bit in the postseason. He has the biological makeup — big hands, long fingers — to be successful with the pitch. And we already know he has the mental makeup to put the time in to hone it. Hopefully, the forkball will be a “Maine” focus in spring training.
Although Maine started to use the slider with some success toward the end of the year, and it can be a decent “out” pitch, it loses its effectiveness when used more than 5-10% of the time — unless you are a reliever (see: Sparky Lyle) or your name is Steve Carlton. A starting pitcher needs to be able to change speeds, and the best do it with a strong change-up that moves, or a good overhand curve. John’s curve is big, slow, and awful, and from what I gather, has already been ditched from his bag of tricks. He’ll need to continue develop his change-up no matter what, but until it reaches Johan Santana / Aaron Heilman – like consistency and movement, he’s going to give up a lot of gopher balls. Ditching the change altogether to concentrate on improving the forkball may be his quickest-developing, best choice — because even if it doesn’t break, it can still be effective for its change of speed and location (at the knees). More importantly, it could be career-changing pitch.
Old-time Mets fans remember Mike Scott of the Houston Astros; even older-time Mets faithful remember Mike Scott pre-Astros — when he was a Met. When Scott was on the Mets, he was very much like Maine — a tall (6’3″) guy with long fingers who threw a good fastball with hop, but could never seem to develop secondary pitches. After a 14-27 career with New York, he was sent to Houston after the 1982 season in return for pinch-hitting specialist Danny Heep. He had the same issues with his offspeed stuff, then worked with Roger Craig (ironically, an original Met) to learn the forkball during the 84-85 offseason. The result was mindblowing, as Scott, over the next few years, became the ace of an excellent Houston staff (one that included Nolan Ryan), won a Cy Young, threw a no-hitter, and struck out 300 batters in a season.
But Mike Scott wasn’t the only pitcher to go from so-so to spectacular after learning the split; Roger Craig’s earlier protege was Jack Morris. Morris was another strapping (6’3″), hard-throwing righty whose hard fastball and slider got him through the minors, but weren’t enough to get him to the Bigs. While managing the Tigers in 1978, he taught the split-finger to Morris so he’d have an offspeed pitch, and the rest is history.
For a while, the splitfinger was the “de rigeur” pitch, but fell out of favor for two reasons. First, you need to have long, slender fingers to pitch it with effectiveness — and not everyone does. Secondly, there were rumors that throwing too many were bad for your elbow (in reality, guys were probably suffering overuse injuries because they spent so many extra throws learning the pitch). Admittedly, the splitfinger is not a good choice for most people, but John Maine has the right hand size, and for him, it could be a godsend.
We’ll find out in 28 days whether it’s part of his training program.