I’ve been asked not to jinx it. To keep quiet. Some have plead for me to not get their hopes up. “Our hearts can’t take it anymore,” they say.
But I owe it to you, dear BN’er, to pass along the information: Dillon Maples is in one of those stretches. You know the kind. Where you start to think, is this FINALLY the nasty closer we’ve yearned for?
Let me first say: I’m not there yet. But, in some ways, Maples is in the middle of his best string of outings since his breakout in 2017. First, the raw numbers in his last four games at AAA: 5.1 IP, 1 H, 1 R, 1 BB, 9 K. 83 pitches, 54 strikes, 15 of the swing-and-miss variety. Good numbers, but nothing particularly revelatory, right? Here’s what jumps out at me, though: Maples has retired 10 batters in a row, and has allowed just one walk in his last 20 batters faced.
Maples accomplished both those feats just one time last year, during an early June stretch that was his best (Maples didn’t allow an earned run between May 25 and July 1 last year). The big difference, though, is that stretch in Iowa saw Maples almost completely abandon his fastball. For most of last June, Maples was a slider-curveball pitcher.
This has been a common theme for Maples to pull himself out of struggles the last few years. It makes sense, as his slider is not only his best swing-and-miss pitch, it’s the pitch he’s most comfortable commanding. But an all-slider approach necessitates he throw the slider for a strike, essentially asking him to hang it. This is when he finds himself in trouble.
In recent outings, Maples has actually upped his fastball usage, with probably the highest Strike% he’s had with it in a long time. He’s using it early in the count, often freezing hitters on the first pitch who come in amped-up looking for spin. Even on its own, his fastball is an excellent pitch when he can throw it roughly where he wants.
Here is the breakdown of Maples pitch usage and results during this 4-game stretch:
- SL usage = 41 pitches (49.4%). 10 called strikes, 11 swinging strikes, 4 foul balls, 5 balls in play, 11 balls. Strike%: 73.2.
- FB usage = 31 pitches (37.3%). 8 called strikes, 4 swinging strikes, 5 foul balls, 3 balls in play, 11 balls. Strike%: 64.5.
- CV usage = 7 pitches (8.4%). 2 called strikes, 1 swinging strike, 1 foul, 1 ball in play, 2 balls. Strike%: 71.4.
- And 4 unidentified balls (probably yanked sliders, which would bring that pitch’s strike% down as low as 67%).
This shows some balance that Maples did not have in 2018, and is more reminiscent of his ascent up the minor league ladder in 2017.
The most encouraging at-bat of the whole four games came on April 19 against catcher Josh Thole, a left-handed hitter. Maples started Thole off with a fastball dotted on the outside corner for a called strike. He then got another called strike in the high-outside corner of the zone. Maples then got the 3-pitch K when Thole swung and missed on a high-inside fastball.
It was the first time I remember a three-pitch strikeout for Maples that didn’t involve his signature slider. This usage will only make his slider more potent, as hitters won’t be able to so easily anticipate it. This is the type of pitcher who can reach his relief pitcher ceiling, and while I won’t be caught holding my breath soon, each ‘Strike 1’ with the fastball has my heart flutter just a bit, and dreaming on when he could come up and impact the big league team.