There are many ways to build a contending roster, and the Mariners stumbled on this one. Every fan of this team, no matter their overall feelings on the front office, will readily admit this has been a weird year. Hot and cold spells from the team and from individual players, a PED Suspension to one of their stars that somehow didn’t affect the team’s winning percentage in the slightest, a fan vote all-star campaign: this season truly does it all.
The one complete constant to this team has been Edwin Díaz’s dominance; he has appeared in 60 games to date and blown exactly three saves—none since June 1st. Saves are sabermetrically stupid, but beat it, nerds: For someone to appear in 50 save situations by August 16th and convert 47 of them is nearly unfathomable—and not only that, the Mariners have not lost a single game in which Díaz entered in a save situation, bouncing back to win each of his blown saves. Like a .400 batting average, it is such a clear indicator of dominance we’re willing to wave away our analytical objections in honor of the level of complete control he exhibits on the mound. That Díaz could reach this point was by no means a guarantee, even on March 29th of this year when the season opened. We knew how good he could be—the tantalizing debut season—but also how pedestrian, as his struggles matched the team’s in 2017 (please note that Edwin Díaz’ definition of “struggles” is still a 1.0 fWAR season.)
In May 2016 when the decision to convert him to a reliever was announced, the Mariners were off to a good start and their farm was enjoying a first-season results resurgence under the new front office. When the news broke, reaction was tentatively intrigued, although there was an undercurrent of discontent over abandoning one of the Mariners’ best starting pitching prospects in favor of something else with no guarantee of success. The case for the conversion, according to the Mariners, was straightforward: lacking a third pitch, and with a body type and arm action that made him relatively unlikely to bear the hundreds of innings loaded onto MLB starters or to develop a reliable third pitch to complement his fastball and slider, it made sense to see if his stuff would play up in late innings.
Later, we’d learn more; former Mariners pitching coach Andrew Lorraine told Isabelle the now-famous story of Díaz charting pitches his own way, creating a diss track of each hitter—a track for which he is currently generating a breathtaking amount of footage for the music video. As we learned more, it aligned well with the results on the field as a closer. The untouchable mindset, the “you can’t beat me because I’m good and you’re bad,” paired with the talent, is a perfect match for one-on-one, high-stakes dominance; Tiger Woods at the peak of his powers, Mariano Rivera, and Edwin Díaz all share that. Díaz would never, I feel confident in saying, have reached this level as a starter, even if he panned out as a prospect. This is where he belonged.
This front office has needed developmental or transactional wins at varying times quite a bit. Zach Lee for Chris Taylor is not really a flavor that ever washes out of your mouth—or that’s what I would have thought, before the Mitch Haniger/Jean Segura trade and the Marco Gonzales/Tyler O’Neill trade (in a shocking turn of events, it turns out Tyler was not Bryce Harper or Mike Trout). Given the frenetic trading activity that emanates from two stories above Safeco’s home plate gate, most of the “wins/losses” conversation has rightly focused on the process and results of the various splashy trades, especially paired with the paucity of free agent signings. For the Mariners’ brand of winning, though, the biggest win of all was turning Edwin Díaz into a pitcher who is putting up what will likely be one of the best relief seasons of the decade.
While looking back to 2016’s Díaz conversion coverage, it strikes me that there was some concern over never letting him fail as a starter; that was the common path to back-end dominance that players like Andrew Miller followed. While the Dipoto tenure has had its ups and downs—virtually guaranteed by the number of moves made—getting in front of this one and jumping on the opportunity to turn a good asset into a great one is likely to be remembered as one of this front office’s greatest decisions. Dipoto likely owes Díaz a debt of gratitude: his extension was due, in part, to the runaway success of this 2018 team, and that success can be largely attributed to Díaz’ incredible season. This season, in turn, should earn Edwin Díaz his share of AL Cy Young votes, which he may never have sniffed if he were a member of Seattle’s rotation.