When Tampa Bay and Cleveland essentially swapped Jake Bauers and Yandy Diaz during the 2018-19 offseason, many saw it as a Challenge Trade. It was one of those rare moves in which two teams were exchanging young, promising players who looked to be a better fit on elsewhere.
For Cleveland, Bauers filled a more pressing hole on their roster than did Diaz; the Rays saw Yandy’s biceps (and probably his swing, but mostly, you know, the biceps) and said ‘We can get more than one career home run out of that.’
One Year Review
One season in, and the Rays (as usual) are looking pretty smart.
Poor Jake Bauers had a very disappointing year, with limited playing time and an OPS+ of 78. On the flip side, Diaz played just under half a season in 2019, but he slashed .267/.340/.476 for an OPS+ of 116. Combined with his positional flexibility (playing 50 games at first, 22 at third, and 16 as their DH), and he was right around a 3.5-rWAR (or 3.0-fWAR) player per 162 games.
The question heading into 2020 is whether that figure represents Diaz’s floor, or his ceiling. Coming into 2020, Diaz had just one homer in 88 career games in Cleveland, but he still hit for a 94 OPS+ thanks to a strong batting eye and a .283 average. That batting eye didn’t disappear in 2020, either, as his 10.1 percent walk rate just about mirrored his career rate to date.
However, there was about a month or so, at the start the 2019 season, when it looked as though the Rays had truly fleeced Cleveland. Diaz slashed .289/.385/.600 with seven of his 14 long balls in the first 25 games of the season, before cooling off for a more timid .258/.319/.424 slash line the rest of the season. Of course, his season — and that latter stretch — also included two IL stints, so it’s fair to wonder what impact that had.
The Case for Beast Mode
The case for that first month breakout being at least mostly real: The dude mashes the ball. His 91.7 mph exit velocity, per Baseball Savant, is in the top eight percent in the league, and it gets even better when divided into ground ball, line drive, and fly ball buckets. The league average is 84.8 mph on ground balls, 93.3 on line drives, and 92.0 on fly balls. For Diaz, it was 89.2/98.7/94.5. So, it wasn’t just pounding the ball into the ground, as Diaz had once been accused of doing early in his career. His launch angle went from 0.0 in 2017 to 4.4 in 2018 and 5.7 in 2019. There’s plenty of room for additional improvements on that front, and if he does, it’s only going to be even better news, as his line drive + fly ball exit velocity was among the truly elite in baseball last year.
Make sure to also look at his 10.4 percent barrel rate, that is quite juicy (48th in all of baseball last year per PA and 68th per batted ball). And while not all Statcast metrics have proven to correlate year-to-year, barrels are arguably the best of the bunch, as studied by Alex Chamberlain of FanGraphs recently.
None of these metrics can promise that everything will fall into place in 2020. However, when you consider the gun show that Diaz brings to each game, it fair to feel relatively confident in his ability repeat his top-tier mashing of the baseball.
The most important facet of Diaz’s game in 2020 then may well be his ability to stay on the field, and where he is able to play when he takes the field. With a seven nation army currently filling the depth chart three phalanx deep at first base (how’s that for mixing metaphors), Diaz is most likely to see the majority of his time at third base. Having played fewer than 100 games in his career at the hot corner, it’s hard to know for sure what the Rays will get, but they at least know it won’t be a dumpster fire. In 99 career games at the hot corner, Diaz has been worth -3 DRS and -5 OAA — not great, but he’s also never really settled at a position.
In his first year with the Rays, Diaz already won over plenty of believers. He was suddenly hitting home runs, and his plate discipline stayed as steady as ever. If he can bring back a bit more of that batting average without sacrificing any power, he could be a legitimate star, and a staple at the top of the Rays lineup.