When the Mariners decided to move Edwin Díaz to the bullpen, the move was met with—well, let’s call it “not universal acceptance.” Fan reluctance was understandable; Díaz was the one bit of true glitter in the tarnished tiara of the team’s pitching prospects. Yet while Díaz might have been a decent starter, he has the potential to be an all-star relief pitcher. Edwin Díaz, starting pitcher, might have been fearsome. Edwin Díaz, closer, will be terrifying.
It starts with his physical appearance. Díaz does not have the cheerful hangdog appearance of a Price, or the prom king looks of a Verlander, or the generic “contestant on the Bachelorette” face of Chris Sale. With his long nose, perfectly, cruelly arched eyebrows, and small dark goatee, Edwin Díaz looks like what he is: an agent of pain and destruction. He has long, elegant fingers, the kind that a pianist might have, one who plays on an instrument made of bones and teeth; his fingers are the kind that get a close-up in a horror movie so you appreciate what those hands are about to do, how lovely they will be as they break things. Everything about him is long and thin and gives the impression of old magic: a bokor, a hired sorcerer, a crossroads figure. He is somehow taller than his 6’3” and somehow older than his 22 years as he regards the batters impassively, timeless as the Sphinx. He has a perfect stillness on the mound between pitches, sizing the batter up with those ancient eyes. Then he pulls back and strikes, his arm whipping out from seemingly nowhere to deliver his reckoning.
Díaz regards the batter stepping into the box with a slight tinge of disdain, an impatient ruler weary of a long day of passing judgment on his subjects. He curls those long fingers, talon-like, around the ball. Next he looks away from the batter, an executioner dropping the hood, before he pistol-whips that long, thin front leg skyward while hiding his right arm behind his upkicked knee. Then he levers his arm back, so far behind him it looks like he’s sent it for a ride on one of those giant clothing carousels at the dry cleaners’. From the batter’s perspective, his arm simply disappears back behind his body. He guards the ball jealously; he will not allow the hitters to see his weapon until the last possible second, a final glint of steel before they find themselves buried in an 0-2 count. Then he snaps his arm up and over in a cobra strike, the ball speeding towards the plate speaking a forgotten language, one comprised entirely of curses. This is magic, and not the tawdry Vegas kind, but something tapped from a deeper, older root. The ball disappears into the lacuna of his glove; those long limbs twitch slightly; then suddenly the ball has reappeared, a butcher’s knife flung by a jilted god, hurtling toward the catcher’s mitt like a swung hammer, one that will light the lights to the top when it meets its target.
So far, we have had the privilege of watching Edwin Díaz pitch a little over twenty innings. In those 21.9 innings, he is running a K/9 of 18.28, striking out 44 of the 93 batters he has faced. His strand rate is about 97%; his BABIP .447. These are numbers that burn too hot to burn long, but Díaz isn’t falling off any cliff. He has the big fastball, but the pitch he really loves is his slider, which has a whiff rate of near 50% for July. In AA Jackson, when Díaz had big strikeout days, the pitch that was working for him was his slider. In the big leagues, the slider has only gotten more dangerous, in part thanks to some help from please just be a pitching coach already Joaquín Benoit. The new action makes the slider break even later and more sharply, zipping into a tailspin right as it crosses the plate, like one of those helicopter toys you launch with a rubber band, but made of razorblades dipped in carbolic acid. In June, the BAA on his slider was .111; in July so far, it’s .063. The fastball is the thunder; the slider is the lightning.
Díaz is good and he’s only going to get better. He’s already set records, and he will set more. I was worried when the M’s called him straight up from Jackson, not because I doubted his talent—there is no doubting his talent—but because I was afraid of having him pitch to future Hall-of-Famers and All-Stars without getting his feet wet a little with AAA batters, that last set of training wheels. He can have a tendency to throw wild at times, but I shouldn’t have ever doubted him, as he clearly doesn’t doubt himself. Díaz approaches everything with the casual confidence of the young and exceptionally talented. He believes he can and will strike anyone and everyone out. In an interview with Jackson’s David Lauterbach, describing a nine-strikeout outing, he observed, “they try to hit my ball, and they don’t have any chance.” This isn’t braggadocio, necessarily, but a simple statement of fact. “I come to get outs,” he says. The knife knows its job is to cut.
Any good horror junkie will tell you: the scariest movies are the ones where the agent of terror does not show its face until well into the movie, if at all. True masters of horror know how to prolong the tension, allowing the psychological torment to build (see: The Babadook. But not by yourself, and definitely not at night). As a starter, Edwin Díaz would have been an occasional, predictable headache for opposing teams, something one could cure with enough rest and water and sunlight. But stalking through the Seattle bullpen like an avenging angel, those long fingers hooked over the fence, staring out at the field with his fathomless eyes, he is a sword of Damocles suspended over an entire contest. Edwin Díaz is terrifying, he will only become more terrifying, and the role he’s in allows him to maximize that terror, to weigh each batter against his own talent and—more often than not—find them wanting.