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Season Preview: Yandy Diaz abides

MLB: World Series-Los Angeles Dodgers at Tampa Bay Rays Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

The 2020 campaign was supposed to be a breakout year for Diaz, and it was, but maybe not in ways we expected.

Diaz came to the Rays in a trade before the 2019 season, and he was something of a batting enigma. The well-built Diaz could definitely hit a ball hard. The problem had been that those balls were pounded right into the turf, evidenced by a 56.6 groundball percentage. Could the Rays help him lift those balls just a tad higher, turning ground ball outs into line drive hits?

Many thought the Rays had found a way to fix Diaz’s swing as his power numbers grew during his debut season with the team. Despite missing some time with injuries, Diaz hit .267/.340/.476 with 14 HR over 347 plate appearances. His groundball percentage was still above league average, but less than it has been during his career up to that point (50.8%)

However, during the pandemic plagued 2020 season, Diaz turned into a completely different style of hitter. His power disappeared, but he couldn’t stop getting on base.

Playing in just 34 of the 60 regular season games, Diaz remarkably had a groundball percentage of 66%. Two-thirds of the balls he put into play were on the ground.

That’s not great! Diaz’s launch of -7.9 degrees was the lowest of any qualified hitter (min. 75 PA), and he was one of just three to post negative launch angles; he is joined by Luis Garcia (-4.3) and fellow Ray, Kevin Kiermaier (-0.4).

He also hit a lot of balls to the opposite field — not what you expect from a power hitter. The hope was that he’d eventually start pulling ball more, thus leading to more lift in his swing, and better power numbers. However, during the 2020 season, an incredible 42.3% of his balls in play went to the opposite field.

Stunningly though, this worked for Diaz. He was among the top offensive performers on the Rays roster as he hit .307/.428/.386. He had just 2 home runs, and ended up with a 138 wRC+ over 138 plate appearances. He struck out less than ever (12.3%) and walked more than ever (16.7%). So while his power numbers didn’t quite stand out the Rays had hoped, Diaz transformed into an excellent bat atop the Rays lineup as he found ways to get on base.

However, despite his abilities to get on base, his abilities on the base paths leave something to be desired as ranked among the worst baserunners in all of baseball last season (-1.3 UBR). Although, it could be possible that his poor UBR (Ultimate Base Running) numbers were just another blip of the pandemic afflicted season. During the 2019 campaign, Diaz had a 1.5 UBR, which was well above the league average of -0.5. If he is to have value as an on-base guy, he needs to return to pre-2020 baserunning abilities.

His success was hard to explain since the defense truly knew where and how he was going to hit the ball the majority of the time and they were still unable to keep him off base.

Draysbay noticed the not so subtle change in Diaz performance and attributed it to a change he made at the plate. It was less due to something in his swing or his stance, but rather how far away he was from the plate compared to 2019.

We wrote about this as something he needed to fix. And indeed if Diaz’s role is to be that of a power hitter, maybe it should be fixed. However, with his strong on-base performance, perhaps it’s something to embrace. Diaz has the power to slug a few balls out of the park every now and then, but his true success has aligned with blistering balls into the opposite field. Hopefully the lift will come, but for now, Diaz will serve as an on-base machine near the top of the lineup.

Yandy Diaz is being projected to hit .281/.383/.409 with 7 HR over 405 plate appearances by the PECOTA prediction system of Baseball Prospectus. Diaz is also predicted to have a 122 DRC+ and accrue 1.6 WARP. Clearly PECOTA believes in Diaz’s ability to keep having success at the plate, despite his proneness to drilling the ball into the ground. Baseball Prospectus even went as far as to identify Yandy Diaz as one of 10 hitters on the rise this year.

It likes Díaz even better. It’s not projecting an end to your endless waiting for all those muscles to translate into home runs, but only nine other players claim a higher projected OBP than Díaz’s .383, and they’re all superstars. With his good plate discipline, contact skills, and ability to hit the ball hard (if mostly on the ground), Díaz is just a tough out, any time he’s healthy enough to be in the lineup.

For the upcoming season, Diaz will likely see plenty of time in the corner infield positions for Kevin Cash. It remains to be seen if he’ll be used as part of platoon at either position. However, Diaz has been pretty solid against RHP since joining the Rays, so he may be in the starting lineup most nights, with Cash picking and choosing where he’ll slide in defensively.