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Failure to Launch: How to fix what’s wrong with Yandy Diaz

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The Rays slugger isn’t slugging in 2020.

Tampa Bay Rays v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

It seems that the enemies of the Tampa Bay Rays have acquired the deactivation codes for Yandy Diaz, aborting his mission to launch.

The behemoth of a man found his power stroke with the Rays last season as his high exit velocity and regular playing time finally led to a breakout year for him. Even in an injury-marred season, Diaz hit .267/.340/.476 with 14 homeruns over 347 plate appearances.

The key to his success was maintaining his high exit velocity numbers from Cleveland but learning to get his swing started earlier — and consequently pulling the ball — with much more authority, as opposed to slicing everything the other way. By the pulling the ball more, Diaz was able to get more lift with his natural swing plane and helped him to significantly increase his offensive output.

Last season in article for the Tampa Bay Times, John Romano spoke with Rays hitting coach Chad Mottola who noted that they didn’t have to change much to turn Diaz into the hitting fiend that he was in 2019.

“Before he would use the other side of the field a little bit to a fault,” hitting coach Chad Mottola said. “The ball was getting deep on him so he was getting it less in the air the way the whole swing path works. Now he’s getting his timing better by playing every day and he’s catching the ball out front.

During his sparingly used time in Cleveland, Diaz struggled to pull the ball and, even though he was hitting the ball hard, it was to the right side of the field and, more often than not, on the ground. If he did manage to pull the ball, it wasn’t effective, as he mainly just rolled over on the pitch and grounded out. For all his strength, Diaz’s career in Cleveland totaled only one home run.

When he joined the Rays in 2019 and made the tweaks Chad Mottola laid out, it allowed him to fully harness his strength and generate more power. Diaz ultimately hit the ball to right field 5% less in 2019 than he did in 2018, but by ostensibly swinging earlier, Diaz was also able to barrel up a higher percentage of pitches as he increased his barrel% from 4.4% in 2018 to 9.2% in 2019.

Another thing that changed for Diaz was the groundball, or the lack thereof. When the Rays acquired Diaz, a lot was made of his launch angle. It seemed his motive in life was just to avenge Carl Spackler and wage war on the ground as he routinely hit triple digit velocity bullets right into the dirt.

For context: Diaz’s groundball percentage during his rookie season in 2017 was a ghastly 59.0%, but that number decreased to 53.3% in 2018 and then to 50.8% in 2019 during his breakout season with the Rays as he replaced these groundballs with balls in the air without dramatically changing his launch angle.

During the 2019 season, when Diaz hit a flyball, his average was .350 and he slugged 1.175.

So what’s going wrong in 2020?

Diaz is either regressing back to his days in Cleveland, or if he has made some tweaks that are negatively affecting him at the plate.

Diaz’s average launch angle in 2019 was 5.7 degrees, which still isn’t all that great, but was slightly up from his Cleveland days and his increased flyball numbers led to a much higher output. However, in 2020, Diaz is has an average launch is angle is -10.2, which is easily the lowest mark in baseball. Coincidentally, the next closest is fellow Ray, Kevin Kiermaier who has a -5.2 launch angle, perhaps an article for another time.

The decreased launch angle has obviously led to more groundballs for Diaz, and although his batting average is decent, his slugging percentage has taken a huge dip as groundballs are far less likely to go for extra bases than, say, a ball to the gap.

Heading into play on Thursday, August 13th, Diaz actually leads the Majors in hitting the ball to the opposite field, which is a direct contradiction to what the Rays have said they want him to be doing.

Is Diaz reverting back to his old ways? If Diaz is not swinging earlier, that could be leading to all of his shortcomings this season, like his failure to barrel up a single pitch.

Seriously, he has 0 barrels on the season. With his 9.2 barrel% in 2019, things were looking great for Yandy, but since the start of this season, he failed to barrel up anything.

Here’s his resulting heat map of batted balls for 2020, as of August 12:

One thing is for certain, this is not the Yandy Diaz of 2019.

One quick fix? Step up to the plate

Not everything is going wrong, per se, for Yandy Diaz in 2020. His 17.3% walk rate put him among the top 5% in all of baseball, but the exit velocity for Diaz — which was in the top 10% of baseball last season — needs to improve, particularly on pitches away.

Here’s Diaz’s zone profile by exit velocity from 2019 and 2020:

For those with keen eyes, you may have noticed a slight change with Yandy Diaz at the plate. Not much has changed physically regarding his build, but his positioning at the plate has, with Diaz standing farther back in the batter’s box than he did in 2019.

To get a spray, and not just the “best” career highlights, I’ve used the “random video generator” on Statcast for the top and bottom three clips from Diaz’s 347 PA in 2019 and 75 PA thus far in 2020. Then the fourth image is a highlight video, where Diaz hit the ball well.

Left to Right, top: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 (2019)
Left to Right, low: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 (2020)

We are working with varying camera angles, but in each comparison you’ll note we’ve tried to line up the batter’s box with the first line, and then the second line compared the position of Diaz’s back foot. In each comparison, the 2020 image on the bottom row has Diaz positioned farther back from the plate.

On the fourth comparison on the right hand side, you’ll note that Diaz is slightly closer than the first three. This is the most recent example (from yesterday!) so perhaps an effort to move closer to the plate is... afoot?

It’s not hard to imagine standing closer to the plate might help Diaz’s exit velocity overall, and help his 26.9% hard hit rate in 2020 to return to his career norms at twice that frequency (44.8% in 2019, 44.4% in 2018). It may also help Diaz make contact like he used to back in 2019.