NEW YORK – The Blue Jays haven’t given fans much to get excited about this season. Entering the year needing a ton of breaks to stay in the playoff hunt, pretty much everything went wrong. The team has received precious little from its four or five supposed “best” players, with J.A. Happ being the lone standout of that group before his trade to the Yankees.
One other exception is Luke Maile, who has very quietly put together a career season. Though most fans will remember his clutch hits and hot start, Maile sits with a slash line of .249/.336/.371 through September 20. Those are all career-highs by comfortable margins, as are his games played (62), plate appearances (226), RBI (27) and walk rate (11.1%). Maile’s next home run will represent a new career-high and this is also the first season where he hasn’t spent any time below the Major League level. Among catchers with at least 100 plate appearances Maile ranks 22nd in TAv, 17th in wRC+ and 13th in WARP, which makes him one of the best backup catchers in the game this season pretty much any way you slice it.
His emergence has been a pleasant surprise and he has potentially played his way into the team’s future with Russell Martin’s deal set to expire at the conclusion of next season. As for the present, Maile is sharing time behind the dish with Danny Jansen and Reese McGuire as the season comes to a close. Despite Maile’s fine season, much of the talk is about Jansen emerging as Toronto’s catcher of the future (ignoring all the gloom that the term has portended in the past). With the playing time scales have tilted toward the younger options at this point in the year, Maile is taking more of a hands-off approach than you might expect.
“First and foremost, man, I’m not a giant believer in, like, ‘you have to have a veteran in order to succeed at this level.’ I think that – I try and stay out of the way as much as possible. I think that these guys are obviously established as guys that are going to be good players in the big leagues someday. So to me it’s just letting them create their own niche, have their own feel out there. Sometimes a fresh set of eyes is the best thing for a pitching staff anyway.”
It’s a different take on the situation with so much talk about what young players can take from their older counterparts, but Maile isn’t letting Jansen and McGuire fend for themselves entirely.
“Certainly there’s opportunities where there’s situations in games where maybe they have a question about when a good time for the other team to run is going to be, just little things like that that may come up where maybe I have seen just a little bit more games at this level than they have so maybe it helps. But aside from that as far as their own games I just try and stay out of the way.”
The expectation has always been for Jansen, and to a lesser extent McGuire, to do the heavy lifting in September with Martin getting extended time off. For Maile, he’s staying realistic about the situation and not letting his playing time affect his attitude. He hasn’t heard anything specific in terms of how much he’ll play the rest of the way, saying, “No, and I haven’t asked for it either. I mean I don’t expect it and this is the highest level, right? You show up, you do your job, if you’re in the lineup you play and if not you be a good teammate and try and get better that day. No expectation for that, just trying to finish strong.”
“I’m not a giant believer in, like, ‘you have to have a veteran in order to succeed at this level.’ I think that – I try and stay out of the way as much as possible.” – Luke Maile
He also believes that it’ll be good for the younger players to play in some “cool environments” as they embark on their big league careers, even as it comes at the expense of his own playing time. Maile has played in just two of six games since sitting down with BP Toronto, but regardless of how often he’s in the lineup his goals for the rest of the way are simple and unchanged.
“Just continue to be aggressive, man. I’ve had a decent year with the bat and I think it’s mainly because I’ve been driving the ball a bit more and trying to do some more damage. The playing time isn’t quite there right now so it’s a little more difficult to get timing and consistent reps and all that but for me it’s just get on time for the fastball and try to make something happen.”
More damage indeed. This season, among 382 players with at least 100 batted ball events (BBE), Maile ranks 61st in MLB with 43.6% of his BBEs leaving the bat at an exit velocity of 95 mph or higher. In 2017 that occurred just 20.8% of the time. Moreover, Maile is hitting more line drives (20.3%) and making more hard contact (34.6%) than ever before. The fastball approach seems to be working, as although Maile has seen his strikeouts increase against the pitch, he’s also seeing better results when he connects.
Against fastballs, Maile has an average exit velocity of 91.3 mph, easily eclipsing last season’s 85.1 mph and just shy of the career-high he set back in 2015 (91.4 mph), though that came in just 15 games. He’s blown past previous career-bests with a .434 slugging mark and a .356 WOBA on fastballs as well.
He figures to lose some steam over the season’s last handful of games as his playing time grows sporadic, but he’ll be trying to keep himself mentally sharp even as his regular at-bats dwindle. The fact that the results have validated his approach has certainly allowed Maile to approach the game with added confidence.
“Honestly I think it’s just trying to maintain a humble arrogance a little bit, you know? You’re not going to be feeling good up there when you go hit once a week but if you step up to the plate expecting to do something well in your mind then you’ve got a better chance of doing that. Just trying to stay relaxed. There’s no pressure here. I’ve already proven that I can hit at this level. Now it’s just about trying to win a few games and trying to disrupt the AL races right now, so if I can have some fun doing that it’s all good.”
And while he will put in some work during the offseason to take his game up another notch, that’s still a little too far off to dive into. Fresh off the paternity list, you can’t blame Maile for wanting to spend some time away from baseball for a bit.
“As soon as this season gets over with I’m going to go home and be a dad and play some golf. I’m not too worried about adjustments yet. Next year is a long way away.”
Lead Photo – John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports