Edwin Díaz has been the Mariners’ best player so far this year. The lot of relievers is that their impact is limited to just an inning or two of high-leverage work, but just as we remember Alexander the Great and forget his more long-lived grandfather Amyntas III, Edwin’s brilliance has deserved a spotlight.
The back of his electronic baseball card is an Easter basket full of Sugary fun facts. He’s struck out two-thirds of the batters he’s faced. A batter hasn’t reached third base since the first game of the season. He’s been in just two three-ball counts. Despite two HBPs Díaz retains a negative FIP and xFIP to accompany his 0.00 ERA, in large part because he has yet to walk a batter.
When I think of Díaz it’s difficult for me to shake the endearing profile Isabelle painted of him last spring when interviewing his former coaches:
Early in the 2015 season, the coaches of the Seattle Mariners’ High-A affiliate, the Bakersfield Blaze, assigned their starting pitchers in-game homework.
Each one was given a sheet with boxes for each opposing batter, and instructed to watch the at-bats and fill in a game plan for each player. Most players filled the chart out the traditional way. But when pitching coach Andrew Lorraine looked at 21-year-old Edwin Díaz’s chart, he saw something entirely different.
Rather than highlighting weaknesses for pitches high and inside, or propensities for swinging at anything in the bottom half of the strike zone, Díaz had written things like, “This guy can’t hit me,” “He can’t touch me,” and “I’m going to throw it right by him.”
In sharing this exercise, Lorraine recalls that “there was nothing specific [in the chart], it was just about how he was better than them.”
This year, much like his debut season in 2016, Edwin’s been correct. Yet this year his fastball has been overshadowed by his secondary offering. Of the 24 sliders “Sugar” has thrown, 12 have been whiffed on. Díaz has hitters gearing up for the fastball, and, nearly 40% of the time, is whipping the rug out from under them.
Despite what his occasionally anxiety-inducing outings last year would suggest, Díaz ran comfortably low walk-rates during his brief time in the minors. That remained the case in 2016. His first year saw him run just a 6.9% BB rate, well below the 9.0% league-average for relievers, but he slipped to 11.5% last year. As both our own Tim Cantu and LL Alumnus Brendan Gawlowski noted recently, Díaz has velocity unlike the rest of the Mariners bullpen, or the rest of the human race for that matter, which allows him to succeed in spite of his walk rate.
There are still some signs worth fretting over. Díaz has just around 1/3rd of his pitches in the strike zone - well below his career rate of ~50%. He’s gotten his results by getting hitters to chase out of the zone, and while that will always work well for him considering his stuff, it’s hard to imagine it sustaining at this rate. Relievers can succeed without throwing many pitches that would be called strikes - Alex Claudio and Wade Davis are a couple that come to mind - but it’s a narrow path to walk.
Thankfully, “Sugar” has done a masterful job of avoiding difficult counts where he has had to throw a strike, counts where last year he got burnt and got devoured by a home run bug with a sweet tooth. He’s done so despite being received by Mike Marjama and David Freitas, neither of whom have Mike Zunino’s defensive chops, nor his familiarity with Díaz’s pitches. A glance at his release point chart this year compared with the previous two seasons should lend some encouragement about consistency:
With the Mariners still short their full lineup and rotation, and missing a few bullpen pieces they expected heading into Spring Training, they needed Edwin Díaz to be ready to go day one. So far, he’s shone brighter than anyone could have imagined.
Muerte o exilio.