I'm writing this column ahead of time -- Friday afternoon, to be exact -- as I'll actually be out of town this weekend. And rather than disrupt my plans, or potentially deliver a late, rushed, or possibly nonexistent column Sunday morning, I'm doing this when I have proper time. Which is my way of disclaiming that the numbers I'm quoting here are accurate as of Friday evening, but will likely have changed slightly by Sunday. Hopefully not to the point of mattering that much, but just so you know.
The halfway point of the season has just passed, and the all-star break is fast approaching. I believe I've stated before I prefer to look at seasons in trimesters, rather than halves or quarters, but I have to admit the break as a line of demarcation is very attractive in terms of stock-taking. This particular season, we also have an intriguing extra little storyline relating to the all-star break: Aledmys Diaz representing the Cardinals as their lone all-star, in his first major league season.
Of course, we all know that Diaz wasn't supposed to be the Redbirds' sole representative; that honour was officially bestowed on Matt Carpenter, the club's best player and a legitimate MVP candidate, if an admittedly quiet one. But when Carpenter went down with an oblique injury, Diaz got the nod. And he deserves it, too; this isn't the 2008 Pirates needing a player on the NL squad without any realistic candidates. Diaz has been almost astoundingly good, and even for those of us who have been on the bandwagon for a good long while now, it's slightly surreal to see just how good the young Cuban has been right out of the gate.
Prior to the season, I liked Aledmys Diaz. Quite a lot, in fact. Enough to wedge him onto my offseason prospect list, in spite of initially deciding not to include him because of the whole professional Cuban/not exactly the same as a prospect thing, which in hindsight I think was incredibly stupid on my part, and I don't know why in the world I thought holding to the same guidelines as MLB.com (no professional players from Cuba or Japan or Korea or anywhere else are considered prospects by their rules), when I thought those guidelines were dumb even before this situation came up, was a good idea. But, hey, live and learn.
Anyhow, I ultimately decided I couldn't, in good conscience, omit Diaz when I thought he had a better claim to belong among the best prospects in the organisation than many other players. I put him at number six, and in hindsight, that ranking, aggressive as it looked to many at the time, was downright pessimistic. Here's my scouting report on Diaz from the offseason; I'd like to point out my prediction of him settling in at second base instead of Kolten Wong was made before Wong signed his new contract extension, which certainly changed the calculus of the situation. (That being said, I'm not backing away from my belief that would be best for the club long term...)
Diaz was never supposed to begin the year in the majors at all, but injuries to every infielder not nailed down (wait, would them being nailed down not result in an injury anyway?), forced the Cards' hand, and pushed Diaz's timetable forward dramatically. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Well, okay, maybe not history just yet. In four or five years, when Aledmys Diaz is playing out the last couple years of the big contract extension he signed before the 2017 season and has been a fixture of the Redbird lineup, then we can say the rest, as they (we?), say, is history. But for now, the story of what Aledmys Diaz is, and will be, as a player, is still very much being written.
And the latest chapter in that story, I have to admit, is a doozy. Perhaps the most intriguing chapter yet, in fact.
When Diaz signed with the Cardinals, the hand speed and balance in his swing stood out most to me. Once he got stateside, he immediately started hitting, beating up on High A pitchers to the tune of a 121 wRC+ over his first 54 plate appearances. The organisation very quickly decided he was a little too good for the level and promoted him to Double A Springfield, which is where our story really begins.
Double A is widely considered to be the biggest jump in the minors, and depending on who you ask, perhaps the biggest jump up in all of organised baseball. (Some people claim High A to Double A is the largest gulf, while others argue that the jump from the minors to the majors, no matter what level you jump from, is the biggest.) At the very least, Double A is generally understood to be the strongest filter, separating the wheat from the chaff very effectively. You see plenty of players who stall out somewhere between being a High A success and a Double A afterthought. Not until you get to the minors to majors jump, when the spectre of the Quad A player rears its John Gall-shaped head, do you find another gap that traps tons of players. In other words, Double A is where you really start to learn what you might have in a player.
And in Double A, we started to get a real look at what the Cardinals might have in Aledmys Diaz. Those quick hands and strong, balanced swing allowed him to hit in Double A, to the tune of a .291/.311/.453 line, good for a 116 wRC+. Considering this was a shortstop, playing his first organised baseball in over a year and a half due to difficulties establishing residency in Mexico after defecting, that number is a pretty big deal. Probably a bigger deal than most of us gave credit for at the time. The BABIP was a little high, at .346, but not anything completely ridiculous. Also, we know BABIPs tend to vary more widely in the minors, simply because skill levels can vary so much more than in MLB. Seeing a player with highly touted bat to ball skills post a moderately elevated BABIP in the minors could be seen as a positive just as much as a bound-to-regress negative, the way it would be cast at the major league level.
You can probably see the potential trouble hidden in that triple-slash line, though, almost immediately. In fact, it's not really hidden at all. It's that second number of the batting line: .311. Now, a .311 on-base percentage is really never anything to write home about; even in an overall depressed offensive era (which we seem to be coming out of now, admittedly, but was in full effect in 2014), it's not a great number. But a .311 OBP with a .291 batting average? Now you're talking about a real potential problem.
Aledmys Diaz went to the plate 125 times in Springfield before an injury cut his debut season short. In those 125 plate appearances, he hit three home runs. Again, not bad for a middle infield prospect. He walked one fewer time.
That's right; Diaz drew two walks in 125 trips to the plate, translating to a hard-to-believe 1.6% walk rate. That walk rate looks even worse in the context of his Double A strikeout rate, which sat at 19.2%. Not a bad number on its own, certainly, but that 12:1 strikeout to walk ratio is terrifying. Hitters don't usually want to see their K:BB ratios look like that of Dennis Eckersley in 1990.
So what it appeared we had in Diaz as of his 2014 season ending was a hitter with good contact skills, though not anything remarkable, solid power on contact, featuring a .182 ISO in Palm Beach and a .162 in Springfield, though again that's more good than great, and absolutely nothing resembling a plate approach. Or, at least, zero patience at the plate, which as always it's important to point out patience and discipline are not exactly the same thing in a hitter. Related qualities, certainly, but not exactly the same thing. (In Diaz's defense, he did walk 13.0% of the time in High A, but the sample is much smaller and he was facing competition on the wrong side of that great Double A talent filter.)
Upon returning to Double A to begin 2015, Diaz did little to disabuse any of us of the notion his plate approach was going to be a problem. Early in the season especially, he looked to be a hacker, and the overall numbers were poor. In the first month of the season, Diaz drew just five walks. Which, sure, is an improvement over the previous season's Double A totals, but considering those five free passes came in 93 plate appearances (that's a 5.3% walk rate, for those of you keeping score at home), we're still talking about a player whose approach could use an injection of patience. We all know the story about Diaz's struggles, the midseason removal from the 40-man roster, the resulting pass through waivers, and his subsequent (though still more correlative than causal, at least in this writer's ever so humble opinion), breakout the second half of the season.
His overall Double A plate discipline numbers ended up looking like this: a 7.1% walk rate and 15.2% strikeout rate, which is absolutely feasible going forward, one would think, particularly in the context of some pop in the bat and a premium defensive position. He moved up to Triple A, where he set about destroying the league, and here's where we suddenly run into some really interesting territory: Aledmys Diaz, playing for Triple A Memphis, walked in 10.3% of his plate appearances, while striking out just 8.6% of the time. Now, he also did that over just 58 plate appearances, and also posted a .372 BABIP and .240 ISO during that time, so it's possible he was just on a hot streak and pitchers quickly decided to simply give him a wide berth. Even if that were the case, however, the fact he suddenly started taking walks like crazy, rather than continuing to hack away, was a very, very intriguing development.
After the season was over, Diaz was selected by the Cardinals to play in the Arizona Fall League, usually considered a sort of prospect finishing school. And there, playing against some of the higher-octane competition the minor leagues have to offer, Diaz continued to show a solid approach at the plate, walking 8.5% of the time, compared to a 14.6% strikeout rate. Not exactly Joey Votto or Matt Carpenter, admittedly, but that's a ratio you'll take every day of the week and twice on Sundays.
And now, of course, Aledmys Diaz is a major leaguer. The stars all lined up this spring, with injuries paving the way for him to make the opening day roster, and Diaz has essentially done nothing but produce since that time. He ravaged the league in April, hitting .423 and posting an overall OPS of 1.186. He 'slumped' in May to a .742 OPS (which, yes, really was a letdown, but still, we're talking about a middle infielder), then rebounded to a very good .848 OPS in June. So overall, a pretty stunning debut for the Cuban.
Even while all that was going on, though, anyone watching Diaz play had to have concerns about his plate approach. That incredible April run, when he tore the cover off the ball pretty much nightly, featured a 5.3% walk rate. Which, considering he was hitting essentially everything, one could easily understand why he wasn't super eager to watch a bunch of pitches go by. It also helped that he struck out exactly as many times as he walked that month, with four on each side of the ledger. (He was also given one intentional free pass, for the record.)
In May, when things were going much less well, Diaz drew six walks in 115 plate appearances. (5.2% BB rate.) The big difference was the fact he struck out 17 times over than time period. Again, a 1:1 K:BB ratio, even when both numbers are very small, is completely understandable. When you're not walking and striking out three times as often, though, the equation starts to look less promising.
A really funny thing has started to happen, though, since about the beginning of June. Aledmys Diaz, it would seem, has turned into a patient hitter.
Since the first of June, Diaz has gone to the plate 134 times. In those 134 plate appearances, he has struck out just 21 times, which translates to a very solid 15.6% strikeout rate. He's had good K rates pretty much all season, though; even that May run when he was striking out three times for every one walk, it's not as if he was whiffing at an inordinately high rate. What's remarkable about this most recent six-ish week period, though, is that against those 21 strikeouts, Diaz has walked 17 times. That's a 12.7% walk rate. Again, not Joey Votto, but getting pretty close to Matt Carpenter.
If we move up the date even a little closer to the present day, things become even more intriguing. Let's just use the fifteenth of June, since that's the middle of the month. From the fifteenth of June (which was in the middle of that terrible Houston series, for reference), to today (the eighth of July, before Friday night's game), Aledmys Diaz has accumulated 81 plate appearances. A small sample, to be sure, but not meaningless. In that time, he has struck out just ten times (12.3% K rate).
He has walked thirteen times. For those keeping score at home, that's a 16.0% walk rate.
Over that time period, Diaz's triple slash line is .333/.450/.636. That 1.086 OPS may not quite match up to the 1.186 he put up in April, but the fact he's doing it with a .346 BABIP, as opposed to a .413 in April, is certainly something to pay attention to.
Early on, Aledmys Diaz was pitched like most rookies are pitched. He got lots and lots of fastballs as teams challenged him to see if he could hit at the big league level. He rather quickly proved that was a bad idea, particularly when those fastballs were on the inner half of the plate, and opposing clubs simply stopped throwing him much of anything to hit. He began to see a steady diet of offspeed pitches, particularly sliders from righties, off the outside corner. The fastballs he did see were all low and away, occasionally on the corner, but just as often out of the zone entirely. He saw slop. He saw junk. And he swung at most of it. He lunged at pitches, tried to pull pitches he had no business pulling, and the resulting swings, complete with violent jerking motions of the head and shoulders, led to predictable outcomes. What looked like an aggressive hitter for most of his time in the minors, and during his hot start in the majors, began to look like a true hacker, a hitter cut from the Jeff Francoeur mold, either unwilling or unable to lay off pitcher's pitches, and doomed to rolling over weak grounders to short and flipping soft fliners into right field.
Now, though, it appears that Aledmys Diaz may be something else entirely. He still has the fast hands, he still has the balanced swing. He has the power potential that showed up at least sporadically at every stop along the way, and the contact ability that's never really been a concern. He still has all those positives we've seen from him in the past, that made him an intriguing offensive prospect even when the numbers were shaky.
And now, it seems Aledmys Diaz just might have added patience to his toolkit. Both patience and discipline, in fact; that heady cocktail of batting eye, intelligence, and planning that can help a hitter with even moderate tools (i.e. Matt Carpenter), into a superstar (i.e. Matt Carpenter).
If what we're seeing currently is real, and Aledmys Diaz really has become a truly patient, disciplined hitter, National League pitchers have reason to be truly terrified of what his numbers may look like from this point onward. Of course, there's a chance this is all small-sample nonsense, an illusion, and Diaz will go back to expanding his zone and getting himself out in the near future. But we know that one of the greatest qualities a hitter (or any player, really), can possess is the ability to make adjustments. We've seen it in Matt Carpenter over his entire Cardinal career. We've seen it with Stephen Piscotty already in his very limited major league time. We saw it for over a decade with Albert Pujols, as he continually found new ways to beat pitchers no matter how they attacked him.
That ability to make adjustments is an enormous thing, and maybe one of the hardest to scout. Aledmys Diaz in April outhit the league, and the league adjusted, and the league beat him for awhile. Now it looks like Aledmys Diaz has adjusted back, and the Cardinals might -- might! -- have something truly special on their hands.
RB edit: I now see that I was beaten to the punch on this article by Jeff Sullivan of Fangraphs, who wrote about basically this exact subject Friday afternoon. I hadn't seen his piece before I wrote this, but now find myself moderately frustrated as to have come in second place. Sigh.