Compelled by conditioned behavior as strong as instinct, Dillon Maples picked up the baseball on the table and cycled adroitly through his pitch grips. Slider, four-seam, curve. Wash, rinse, repeat. It sounds mundane, but just getting a better feel for the baseball itself could play an integral role in Maples fully realizing his potential.
“You hear (Kyle) Hendricks talk, and Wade Davis was great as far as talking to him in the bullpen,” Maples shared with me during an interview at Cubs Convention. “Any time he started talking it was just [makes lip-zipping motion] zip it and kind of soak it in. But all those guys talked about just feeling the ball, you know, feeling your arm out, kind of like a meditation.
“Just feel the ball and know how your body’s feeling that day, feel your hand out in front. I’ve really been trying to do that this offseason. Is it perfect every day? No, of course not. But as long as I’m trying to do that, I know I’m getting better, my feel is getting better.”
If it sounds odd to hear someone who’s been in the organization for six years just having these realizations, remember that Maples was hampered by injuries throughout the early part of his career. Then consider that the Cubs had him pitching off of his triple-digit fastball, a strategy that never made sense for Maples. Finally, there’s the slider that he integrated into his arsenal less than two years ago. Figuring out how to properly command and sequence his pitches has led to more than a little trouble with finding the zone.
The young pitcher also had to adjust to minute differences in baseballs — lower seams? — that most of us would surely never notice. After absolutely rocketing through three minor-league levels in 2017, Maples reached Chicago and found that he was having trouble really snapping off the curveball that had been his bread-and-butter since he was a teenager.
“[I] came up to the big leagues and had a little struggle with the difference in the ball,” Maples admitted. “And this whole offseason — I was fortunate enough to get some big league balls — I’ve been throwing with those, trying to get my feel back for the curveball. The slider wasn’t a problem because I’m really behind the ball, but my curveball I’m on the outer edges.”
Opposing hitters had better hope it takes Maples a while to really get that feel back or that MLB sees fit to change the seams on the ball again, but there’s something even bigger at play. More than how his pitches are coming out of his hand, it’s the thoughts coming out of his head that are key to the reliever’s success.
“I kind of had this realization last year,” Maples said. “Let’s say it’s 1-1 and a righty’s up and I’ve got to execute a two-seam that’s gonna start middle and go to the inside part of the plate. You gotta make that pitch. But if you don’t make that pitch, okay, it’s 2-1. Big deal, it’s 2-1.
“And I try to approach that the same way with any pitch, curveball or slider. So if I throw a bad slider, okay, don’t get worked up. It’s 1-0. Like, that’s one pitch. Guy hits a ball and gets a base hit, okay, guy’s on first base. Let’s just chill out. So I try not to get worked up. If I throw two sliders and they’re not there, I’m like “Oh, God.” You know…no. That’s not how you can pitch.”
Members of the development staff love the growth Maples displayed in terms of both his pitching and his attitude, and it’s easy to see why after spending just a few minutes with the young man. He got a shot with the Cubs late in the season and he’ll be given plenty of opportunities to make the 25-man roster coming out of Mesa this spring. Even if he’s back in Iowa to start the season, he’ll be continuing to apply the lessons he learned in Chicago.
And if he’s really able to combine that newfound confidence and peace of mind with the curve and slider, the rest of the National League had better hope they’re not trailing the Cubs after eight innings.