Dillon Maples has some of the best raw stuff in the Cubs organization, if not all of baseball, but he’s never been able to consistently harness it from game to game or even pitch to pitch. His high-90’s fastball seems to have a mind of its own, making it difficult to utilize the electric slider that has forced even seasoned veterans to bail out helplessly. If Tuesday’s results can be taken at face value, however, Maples may have figured things out.
If you’re still willing to believe that could be the case after the last few years, stick around and I’ll explain why this time it might be for real.
Our first anecdotal clue came when the Cubs opted to designate Duane Underwood Jr. for assignment in order to make room on the roster for Ryan Tepera. Along with indicating that Rowan Wick probably won’t need to be placed on the 60-day IL, it seemed as though the Cubs had made a choice between two promising relievers who were both out of minor league options.
Maples proceeded to lay a little concrete for that hypothetical foundation with an appearance Tuesday afternoon in which he induced a groundout and then struck out the next two batters he faced. The score bug for spring games doesn’t show velocity, but reports from the ballpark had him at 94-97 mph on the fastball with the cutter/slider at 85-87 and the curve just a tick less.
As nice as those results were, it’s the process that really matters when we’re talking about long-term success. And, hoo boy, has Maples made significant changes in that regard. Most people were discussing his shortened arm stroke, which is probably the easiest thing to point out sans comparison, but further analysis shows us completely overhauled mechanics starting with the set position.
The video below isn’t a perfect comparison because of the different ballparks and slightly different angles, but here’s a side-by-side clip of his mechanics from Tuesday (left) vs. last July (right) synced to his release. Please excuse the typo in the tweet and don’t worry if you can’t access Twitter from your device because I’ve got stills below.
Dillon Maples displayed decidedly different mechanics on Tuesday, so I wanted to take a look at them. Here his is in July of 2020 vs. Game 2 of spring. Side by side via @CFCubsRelated pic.twitter.com/V5kCdEYeFF
— Evan Altman (@DEvanAltman) March 3, 2021
The difference in his setup is very evident, from the lower hands to the more upright position. More specifically, look how Maples used to be pre-loaded or “sitting” into his back leg even before starting his delivery. It’s difficult to tell from the angle, but it’s almost certain his feet are closer together now as well.
That brings us to the leg lift, which might be the most dramatically different part of the whole thing. Maples is now bringing his knee well above his belt as opposed to what had been merely a cursory lift prior to beginning his “slide” down the mound.
You’ll notice that he’s now sitting into that back leg to pretty much the same degree, but that his torso is a little more upright. And though it may a trick of the angle, it looks as though he’s already begun his hip drift in the older image.
Ah, here’s the arm stroke that had Twitter abuzz. As you can see in the newer image, Maples isn’t getting as much extension and he’s holding the ball a little higher as a result. He also appears to be a little more on target with his lead elbow — note the higher glove held closer to the body — and shoulders, though that could yet again be a matter of the POV.
By the time he gets to foot-strike, everything looks to be pretty much in sync with one minor difference. In a continuation of the thought above, he does appear to be more on target with the arm slightly farther along its path at this point.
Now we get to his release, which doesn’t feature any really noticeable differences about which we can make definitive statements. Is the arm slot a little higher, resulting in a release point that is slightly elevated from last year? Maybe, but that’s pure conjecture until we can get Statcast data on it. What’s more important is how he’s getting there.
One other mechanical difference I noticed was the way he blocked his front leg, which is kind of like using the front leg as a pole vaulter would their pole. In the simplest terms for those who might not be familiar with such things, you plant your foot and then fire your back hip over your front leg to allow as much energy as possible to transfer through the kinetic chain. Crap, those might not have been the simplest terms.
In any case, Maples’ old move appeared to end with softer blocking than what he displayed Tuesday. That could be merely a matter of the pitches in question above, though there’s ample reason to believe the rest of his delivery is indeed producing such a result. There’s even more reason to believe the timing of his new mechanics will produce a more consistent, repeatable motion.
Were my writing style not equivalent to someone who likes the smell of his own farts, I could have shortened this whole thing considerably by explaining that Maples is longer with the bottom half and shorter with the top. His old delivery had very little leg lift and a long arm stroke, forcing him to rush his torso and arm in order to be on time. That would explain why his upper body appears to be behind in some of those stills.
It also explains why he wasn’t blocking as well, since his upper body was creating a lot of the energy and didn’t need to pivot over his leg quite as much. Now, however, he seems to have found a pattern of movement that has him more on time and in sync.
We’re going to need to see a lot more of Maples to know for certain whether the results are flukey, but it’s quite obvious the process he’s employing is the product of very intentional work. My hopes for his emergence have risen and been dashed too many times already, but dammit if I’m not feeling really good about what I see here.