Let’s rewind to about five years ago. The Tampa Bay Rays were coming off of four straight losing seasons (2014-2017), and weren’t exactly viewed as a threat in the AL east coming into the 2018 season. They showed a bit of life in the first half of the year, posting a record of 49-47.
That first half record was an improvement over recent previous records, but it didn’t really feel like much progress was being made. The veteran position player corps of C.J. Cron, Wilson Ramos, and Matt Duffy was producing, but wasn’t exactly a group that excited many fans for the future.
The second half of 2018 was a completely different story. The team soared to a 41-25 record over that stretch, the second best record in Major League Baseball.
Tampa Bay acquired veteran hitters Tommy Pham and Ji-Man Choi in mid-summer trades, both of whom became among the most productive hitters in the American League after joining the Rays. Minor league infielders Brandon Lowe and Willy Adames made their big league debuts in the second half and instantly became contributors. Youngsters Tyler Glasnow and Austin Meadows were just brought over from Pittsburgh and were knocking on the big league door. Blake Snell was cruising his way to a Cy Young Award.
There was suddenly a level of excitement around Tampa Bay baseball that had been missing for half a decade. The window for contention was starting to open.
Next came the offseason, where the Rays were looking to supplement this new young core with more external help. They added a front-line starter in Charlie Morton, a starting catcher in Mike Zunino, and a few other solid contributors (Avisaíl García, Emilio Pagán, etc.) before the start of the 2019 season as well.
Those additions made plenty of sense when it came to roster construction, but the Rays made one move that winter that left many Tampa Bay fans perplexed.
That move? Trading for Yandy Díaz.
The trade was a three-team deal involving Cleveland and Seattle, where Tampa Bay sent Jake Bauers and $5 million cash in exchange for Yandy Díaz and minor league reliever Cole Sulser. Many in the industry were confused by this move, and thought that this was a steep price to pay for Díaz.
The Rays were acquiring a guy who was never a highly touted prospect and had yet to establish himself in the big leagues at 27-years old. Tampa Bay placed a bet on a player with outlier skills, and a bet on their coaching staff to help the player maximize them.
When Díaz first arrived in St. Petersburg, he immediately started to make the changes that everyone thought he would. More flyballs! More pulled balls! Extra base hits!
It appeared that the Rays had turned a hitter with an excellent approach and contact profile into a true producer by helping him lift more batted balls. His isolated power almost doubled from 2018 to 2019. The Rays and Yandy were really doing it.
Then 2020 rolled around and we saw a completely different Yandy Díaz. All the progress he had seemingly made in the power department was erased. He only racked up two homeruns during the 34 games he played and was hitting more groundballs than any player in baseball. He missed a considerable chunk of time during 2020 due to a hamstring injury, and it was fair to wonder if he was compensating for it in a way that changed his approach.
What is most fascinating here though is that Díaz was actually more productive in 2020 than he ever had been before. Instead of lifting more pitches, he honed in on the strike zone and posted career-best strikeout and walk rates which resulted in the American League’s highest OBP at .428.
Yandy truly had a “get on base at all costs” approach in the shortened 2020 season. Even though it worked, it was fair to wonder if this groundball-heavy, no power approach was sustainable, which left a somewhat conflicted feeling among fans.
These first two years of Díaz’s Rays career left all kinds of questions about the future. Which Yandy will we get moving forward? Which Yandy do we want moving forward? How big of a role are injuries playing into his performance?
Díaz answered those questions with a strong campaign the following year. From a production standpoint, his 2021 season mirrored his 2019 season very closely. His flyball/groundball and push/pull tendencies were very similar, and he traded some of his power for a bit more contact and walks. Overall though, his value as a hitter ended up being in the same neighborhood of his 2019 season (111 wRC+ versus a 118 wRC+).
After the conclusion of last year, it sort of felt like we knew who Yandy Díaz was. His 2019 and 2021 seasons represented the true talent of the player, while 2020 seemed to be a shortened and injury-riddled outlier season, even though he was still very good.
That leads us right into 2022. Just when we think we’ve figured out who Yandy is as a hitter, he tinkers with his approach yet again, only this time it’s led to the best Yandy we’ve seen yet.
In order for Díaz to achieve his first breakout at the plate, he needed to hit for more power. Check. In order for him to take yet another step forward with the bat, he needed to hit for less power? Yes, sort of.
Díaz isn’t exactly trying to hit for less power, but he is trying to do a few different things at the plate which in combination have led to less power, but overall have created a better hitter. Let’s dig in.
First off, Yandy has placed a large emphasis on making contact this season, and currently owns the lowest strikeout rate and swinging strike rate of his career. Never, a big whiffer, he is whiffing even less than before on pitches located in quite literally all areas of the strike zone:
In tandem with a career-best contact profile, Yandy is also running a career high hard-hit rate. Unlike other times in his career where these two skills were inversely connected for him (and for most hitters), this year he has mastered both skills at the same time.
Even though Yandy is hitting the ball consistently harder than he ever has, he is actually not hitting for more power this season. His isolated power and slugging percentage in 2022 are both below his career marks.
Instead, Díaz has actually toned down on the launch angle of those hard hit balls. In 2021, 17% of his hard hit balls were hit at a launch angle of 25 degrees or higher. This season, only 11% were launched 25 degrees or higher.
What this means is that Yandy is hitting at angles where balls in play are most most likely to become hits. Batted balls hit at 25 degrees or higher do fall for extra base hits at times, but they end up in outfielders gloves more often than not.
Yandy is hitting balls at lower angles and the results are hard to argue with. We can see the evidence of this in his increased BABIP this season, as well as his improvements in expected stats such as xBA and xwOBA.
More batted balls falling for hits equals more times on base for the big fella, and his current .384 OBP is a great reflection of that. Díaz has never had any trouble getting on base in his career, but in some seasons he has cost himself in that department in an attempt to add power.
This year however, he seems to have really leaned into his exceptional ability to get on base, and has only enhanced that skill of his even further. His power is still showing up at times, but it seems to be more of a byproduct of his current approach, rather than a focus.
Yandy’s 2022 season up to this point has been remarkable. He’s easily been the most consistent force the team has had on offense, and currently leads all Rays position players in WAR.
Díaz has been a handful of different hitters during his Rays tenure, and the latest version has been the most productive one yet. This is also a good reminder that hitting is far more complex than “hit more flyballs = good.”
Every player has certain strengths and weaknesses, and tinkering to test what works and what doesn’t is often a crucial piece to the development puzzle. How would Yandy have known that his previous approaches, which were working just fine, weren’t actually optimal if he never tried new things at the plate?
The Rays have such a unique and gifted hitter on their hands, and who knows, maybe we see even more tweaking and potentially more production from Yandy in the years to come.