Baseball can be an exceedingly cruel game. The best hitters are defined as the ones that fail merely 60% of the time they come to the plate. Throwing the ball means always being a pitch away from the disabled list and an uncertain future. The path to success is littered with the failures of near-identical men and the smell of burnt rubber in a forgotten town, pitching in front of 2,000 indifferent fans only there for dollar hot dog night.
Dillon Maples was drafted with 429th pick of the 2011 June amateur draft. The reason he wasn't taken in the first round wasn't talent; he had as much talent as anyone drafted that year. In fact, Dillon Maples was among the best baseball players the state of North Carolina has EVER produced: a cannon for an arm, throwing 96 mph with a highly projectable curve mixed in. He was taken in the 14th round and he took $2.5 million to sign only because he was already betrothed to UNC, a college baseball powerhouse that had produced a 1st round in the draft that year (Levi Michael), the year before (Matt Harvey), and two the year before that (Dustin Ackley and Alex White). Furthermore, he was also a FOOTBALL standout, planning to play both sports in the collegiate ranks. Of course, nobody is undraftable, just unsignable, and the Cubs worked out a deal with Maples back when draft money was essentially infinite.
The ceiling was sky-high for Maples, but the problems were evident immediately. There was no tertiary offering; he'd need to develop one or he'd quickly have to become a reliever. The delivery was violent; most 97mph pitches are. His inverted-W arm movement practically guaranteed problems. Most importantly, he couldn't repeat his delivery with any regularity. This is a common problem with high school pitchers – many of them are so talented, so much better than their peers, with coaches so ill-equipped to teach the finer points of where your foot strikes the mound – that it is nearly inevitable. This is exactly the type of problem that followed Jake Arrieta around for the first 4 years of his professional career. He'd get out of sync with himself, and it would take 6-10 pitches to find it. Arrieta has a unique, cross-body throwing motion, one that lends itself to unique problems for a pitching coach. Maples had some similar issues – not with a crossbody throwing motion per se – but with a weird tilt towards 3rd base during his delivery that made release points extremely inconsistent.
Maples would get his first taste of action in 2012, with a stop in Rookie ball. He faced 50 batters; he walked 10 of them and hit 3 others. He threw 6 wild pitches. He hurt his forearm.
Traditionally, the 14th round is where organizations start to draft filler guys. Someone has to be the 4th guy out of the bullpen for Tennessee, and for every roster spot, there are dozens of strapping young men with a slider and a dream willing to work for below minimum wage. Guys that are drafted in the 14th round with xFIPs above 6 and sore forearms generally don't return to baseball the next year – unless, of course, you are a 7-figure investment with the organization's best curveball in the minor leagues. Dillon would rehab and be promoted to Kane County to start 2013. The promotion was aggressive, and it showed. The walks came back: 31 in 34.2 innings pitched. Hit-luck masked his earlier minor league stop- this time, he paid the piper and allowed a staggering 8 runs per 9. Consistency continued to be an issue. Again, I have to stress that if the Cubs didn't have over 2 million reasons to keep Maples, there is almost no chance they would have. They decided to demote him to Boise. He would look considerably better in this extended tour of duty: 42 innings pitched, 41 strikeouts, a 2.14 ERA back by a 3.29 FIP. Most importantly, some of the wildness associated with his delivery had abated. He was ready on track to hopefully regain some confidence in 2014.
That didn't happen. Maples broke a rib, and with it broke any momentum he may have had. He walked more batters than he struck out. He had a wild pitch for every 6 baserunners he allowed, a number that is frankly obscene. Maples would have tied for 2nd in the majors that year in wild pitches for a starter, but while pitcher he would shared that spot with had faced 901 batters (Trevor Cahill, improbably enough), he faced only 151.
For the last time, I can't stress this enough: this is where the story is supposed to end. Talented but wildly inconsistent high-school pitcher flames out due to a combination of injuries and ineffectiveness. In Maples' case, he probably goes back to college and plays WR for a Division II school. In Maples' case, he'd get one more shot – this time, as a reliever who took a few mph OFF his fastball in the hopes of quieting his delivery and refining his command.
Dillon would start the year in Eugene for 3 appearances. The first was middling, and the second was atrocious- 2 hit batters in 7 batters faced, and 4 runs allowed. After an encouraging 3rd appearance, he was promoted to South Bend – Maples can't waste time because he doesn't have time left. For nearly any prospect, being 23, in single-A, and striking out 5.64 batters per 9 would be a soul-crushing experience. For Maples, it was irrelevant. He was healthy enough to finish the season, and for the first time his entire professional career, he walked fewer than 4 per 9 innings. South Bend had proved that the tools were there to be a complete pitcher – definitely not as a starter, but as a relief pitcher that would could at least eat innings. That was something. The addition of a slider was something else.
Maples made his bones in high school as a pitcher that threw 97 mph and had a genuine ++ curveball. He walked a ton of guys, but he was essentially playing catch the pitcher at the high school level – nobody swinging a high school bat could touch him. That didn't work in the minor leagues, and the story usually ends there. Maples lost 3 mph and stopped throwing his best pitch (mostly because the organization told him to lean on his fastball), learning a slider on the fly in Eugene, Oregon. This is a story that you could plausibly make into a movie.
It almost didn't work.
Maples floundered in Hi-A, and was eventually set back down to A ball. A ball, where he pitched in 2013 as a Top-5 prospect in the organization (and forecasted as a potential ace pitcher). A ball, where he pitched as a 2015, where he reinvented himself as a crafty reliever just trying to stop walking so many damn batters. If he struggled here, it was all over. Hell, if he did well here, it still might be.
Maples barely pitched well enough to stay in the organization. There may have been $2.5 million invested in him, but it was half a dozen years ago. Maples wasn't even drafted by Jed Hoyer; he was drafted by the man Jed Hoyer replaced, a man fired in large part for drafting pitchers like Hayden Simpson instead of pitchers like Noah Syndergaard.
Maples reported to Hi-A Myrtle Beach, and immediately walked 3 of the first 7 batters he faced in his first appearance. Like the adage goes, the only consistency about Maples is his inconsistency. There isn't a person in the world who wouldn't doubt himself after that first appearance. All the credit in the world to Maples for persisting. He wouldn't just hang on after that outing; he would dominate.
2017, Hi-A: 128 batters faced, 44 strikeouts, 15 walks, 1 HBP, 21 hits (.188/.289/.295 line against)
Maples was unreal. For the first time in his career, he was dominating. He struck out 12.64 per 9. The walks were there but manageable: 4.31 per 9. Turns out you can get away with walking people if they can't hit the ball off you otherwise. He would be promoted to Tennessee, the first time he would ever reach AA.
2017, AA: 65 batters faced, 28 strikeouts, 11 walks, 1 HBP, 11 hits (.212/.354/.269 line against)
[Short aside: you may look at that OBP and think that Dillon Maples got hit around. That is not the case. There are two things that are required for a pitcher to be bad; he needs to allow base-runners (give the opponent opportunities to score) and allow strong contact (give the opponent opportunities to allow those runners to actually score). Most pitchers allow strong enough contact for only the first thing to be relevant. Dillon Maples didn’t: even though he had a .440 BABIP, he only allowed 3 doubles, no triples, and not a single HR.]
Tennessee was the first time he ever dominated a level after being promoted. People started to talk about Maples again. Dillon now had 3 pitches that he could throw for strikes. His fastball recovered it's speed, now with interest. The breaking pitches had come back. At one point, Maples recorded 14 consecutive outs by way of strikeout. He was promoted to Iowa.
2017, AAA: 81 batters faced, 28 strikeouts, 11 walks, 12 hits (.185/.333/.246 line against)
This year, Dillon Maples has faced 274 batters. He has struck out 100 of them. 6 of them have doubled. 2 have tripled, 3 have hit a home run. 37 have walked. He has travelled back in time; he started as Carlos Marmol, 2012 and ended up as Carlos Marmol, 2007.
And like Carlos Marmol, 2007, he is now on the Cubs.
Today is the first day of the expanded rosters.
Mike Freeman will be called up; Addison Russell has had a setback with his plantar fascitis and needs time to recover.
Victor Caratini will be called up; he is good, and young, and deserved the reward of being called up.
Justin Grimm will be called up; he is no longer hiding on the disabled list.
Dillon Maples will be calle dup; he is a resurrected reliever with a 99mph fastball, a wipeout curveball, a +++ slider, and otherwordly mental fortitude.
Cheer for him.