Developments I looked for in 2018
1) Use breaking pitches to get ahead in count, pitch backwards
2) Return curveball to more prominent role
3) Improve fastball command
It was not the breakthrough season many hoped for from Dillon Maples. While he did use his top end stuff to blow hitters away (3rd in PCL with 42.4 K%), continued control issues (3rd worst in PCL with 22.0 BB%) kept him off the MLB roster for most of the year, and when he did make a handful of appearances during the summer and then again in September he failed to earn the trust of Joe Maddon (11.81 ERA in 9 appearances).
The stuff Dillon Maples hurls up to the plate is as good as any pitcher in the Cubs system. We know this. His fastball sits 96-99, and his nasty slider (86-89) is the type of wipeout pitch any prospect would kill to possess. Even his third pitch, a low-80s curveball, is good enough to get outs at the MLB level. There was no discernible drop in the quality of Maples' stuff during the 2018 season. He also further embraced the concept of pitching backwards, leading with his slider more frequently than he did in 2017, a change I feel is for the better.
Prior to the development of his slider late in 2016, his curveball was his top secondary offering. It is still a solid offering and I think he could throw it a bit more. He mostly uses it to steal strikes early in the count. Like with all his pitches, control is an issue though: pic.twitter.com/3pHYU3FMTx
— Michael Ernst (@mj_ernst) November 9, 2018
After a rocky April, Maples did manage to hone in his control beginning at the end of May to kick off a stretch of truly dominant performances at the AAA level. Over the course of 23 games from May 25th through August 10th Maples did not give up a single earned run (22.0 IP, 8 H, 1 R, 0 ER, 15 BB, 45 K) while striking out exactly 50.0% of the batters he faced. His walk rate (15.7%) was still high but at a more manageable level, and he threw just three wild pitches (while recording 9 in his remaining 16.2 IP at the AAA level). Opposing batters hit just .110 against him. More than anything, this run proved that with even moderate degrees of control he can succeed at the highest levels.
Forget command, until Maples gains semi-consistent control it is difficult to project him as anything more than a part-time Major League fill in. I don't care how good your stuff is as a pitcher, Major League hitters are really good too. Consistently throwing pitches over the heart of the plate or six inches off of it is going to lead to hard contact and easy takes respectively. At times he appeared to be on the right track and maybe a step away from figuring it out, but at the same time his 22.0% walk rate at AAA was the highest of his Minor League career to date.
You never want to give up on an arm like his until you are out of options or offered a deal you cannot refuse, just in case he manages to harness his stuff at some point. Maples does have two option years remaining in 2019 and 2020 so the team can afford to give him additional time at the AAA level to work on his problems.
His 2017 was an amazing career turnaround that saw him return from the brink of retirement to flying through three MiLB levels on the way to making his MLB debut. There was no way for his trajectory to remain on that track but continued progress, especially in terms of his control, was expected. It is difficult to view his 2018 as anything other than a plateau. But as we like to say around here: Progress is not always linear.
I was encouraged by his greater reliance on his slider in 2018. Since Maples is never going to completely harness his command, his slider gives him more room for error when he misses. In a case like his, as with Carlos Marmol before him, if he is going to get beat (or beat himself) it should be on his best pitch more often than not.
As of now Maples is in no danger of losing his 40-man roster spot, but he will turn 27 next May, and if he suffers through another up-and-down 2019 his status could become a bit more tenuous with the club heading into 2020. He may be a pitcher that just needs to be given a regular opportunity at the MLB level to work through his struggles and find his groove, but it is difficult to imagine a team with World Series aspirations like the Cubs taking such a chance.
My feelings over this past summer were that the Cubs would be able to afford giving the final bullpen spot in 2019 over to Maples and allow him a decent length of leash. But with so many injuries and long term questions cropping up with the current bullpen mainstays over the course of the 2018 second half I now feel that is a luxury the Cubs can no longer afford. Instead, Maples will have to begin 2019 down in Iowa once again and battle with a skilled cast of righthanded relief prospects including Dakota Mekkes, Duane Underwood, Jr., James Norwood and others for the chance to fill any holes that crop up in the Chicago pen throughout next season.