It may be late Spring but John Maine is in midseason form.

In his last start Thursday against the Cardinals, Maine needed 88 pitches to complete five innings or an average of 17.6 pitches per inning. If this were the regular season, Maine might have completed one more inning. In his 15 starts last year, Maine cleared the 100-pitch mark seven times. His high was 118 and only one other time did he clear 110.

This is probably a good thing. For better or worse, pitchers are not conditioned to throw 120 pitches any more. The problem is when pitchers are pushing 90 pitches after five innings. That means the bullpen is going to be responsible for three or more innings and that is just inviting disaster.

Let’s contrast Maine’s outing with that of his counterpart, Cardinals ace Chris Carpenter. In this game Carpenter pitched six innings and threw 85 pitches. He averaged 14.2 pitches per inning. If this was the regular season, Carpenter would have pitched one more inning, and depending on the state of the bullpen, could have even started the eighth.

And the really frustrating thing is that Carpenter needed fewer pitches to throw an extra inning, while recording more strikeouts. Carpenter punched out seven batters in this game while Maine recorded only two whiffs. Both pitchers allowed two walks.

Maine usually gets a fair number of strikeouts (he has a lifetime 7.47 K/9) and at the bare minimum you need three pitches to get a whiff. But in a game where he had just two strikeouts and two walks, his pitch count should not have been so high.

With a pitcher who has good stuff like Maine, one wishes he would quit nibbling and just throw strikes. Nelson Figueroa may have to nibble because his stuff is marginal but Maine should not have to have that problem. He features a fastball, slider and change, and when healthy each pitch is an average or better offering.

Pitch counts aside, the key to Maine’s success is his slider. In his big season of 2007, Maine threw his slider 21.4 percent of the time and posted a 15-win season. The following year, while battling shoulder issues throughout the season, Maine threw his slider just 10.1 percent of the time. Last year it was back up to 15.9 percent of the time. But let’s take a deeper look and see how often Maine threw his slider by month, and his corresponding ERA.

Month IP     ERA   SL%
April   21.2  5.40  15
May   36     2.75  14.3
June    4    15.75 11.9
Sep   19.2   4.12  20

When Maine returned from the disabled list last September, he threw his slider 20 percent of the time, the most all year and close to his percentage in his big 2007 season. When Maine’s slider is working, it makes his fastball that much better. Here’s what manager Jerry Manuel told the New York Daily News about Maine’s outing against the Cardinals:

“I thought he had a good slider. But there was some life on that fastball, when starts to get all those foul balls back. I’m really excited that his arm is bouncing back. I thought today, even though you might not call that a ‘wow’ performance, I felt it was a competitive performance against a good-hitting lineup.”

After all, it is Spring Training and a competitive performance should not be dismissed out of hand. The positives were that he did throw his slider and only gave up three hits in five innings of work.

Now, if he could just do something about his pitch count.

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