ST. PETERSBURG — Before we begin, you have to understand this:
The goal was not to fix Yandy Diaz. He was never broken in the first place.
Acquired from Cleveland for Jake Bauers and a bundle of cash in December, Diaz had a reputation for hitting the ball extremely hard but hitting far too many grounders.
Yet any assumptions the Rays would fix the launch angle of his swing were entirely mistaken.
“Our biggest priority was getting him comfortable and showing him we had confidence in him just the way he was,” said Rays senior vice president of baseball operations Chaim Bloom. “We knew he had heard he needed to get the ball in the air more and we didn’t want him thinking he needed to change.
“Sometimes when you try to make changes that are too drastic there are risks that come along with it and you can do more harm than good.”
So how do you explain the difference in Diaz in 2019?
He’s gone from hitting one home run every 265 at-bats in Cleveland to hitting one every 15 at-bats in Tampa Bay, although admittedly with rather smallish sample sizes.
His launch angle is only a tick higher than it was previously and is still far below the major-league average. More than 50 percent of his batted balls are still grounders, and his average exit velocity has actually dropped a tad from 92.1 mph to 91.3.
So what gives?
The differences have less to do with revamping his swing than changing his approach. Diaz, 27, has been more focused on getting to the pitch quicker. This means driving the ball with more authority to the left side of the field instead of letting the pitch get deeper and hitting to the opposite field.
“It wasn’t necessary anything mechanics-wise,” Diaz said through team interpreter Manny Navarro. “It was me trying to get to the ball faster, and that would create more power.”
Part of that is simply timing, and part of it is recognizing what pitches he will see at different points in an at-bat.
So while he still uses all fields and still has more groundballs than most hitters — the league average is around 43 percent — Diaz is taking advantage of certain pitches and consciously driving them.
“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.
“So now those are the ones that are carrying out of the park because when it gets too deep on you, then you can’t get all of your power into it.”
In essence, Diaz had a power hitter’s swing with a singles hitter’s results. For that reason, the Rays had targeted him in trade talks a couple of years ago with the idea that regular playing time might help unlock his potential. Now he’s second on the team in playing time and should surpass his career high for plate appearances by the end of this week.
In his two seasons in Cleveland, almost 77 percent of Diaz’s hits were singles. This year, 50 percent of his hits are for extra bases. He has a team-high nine home runs.
“Just catching the ball out front with a bigger guy is not as easy as we’re making it sound. Not everyone is (Jose) Altuve who can afford to be extended all the time,” Mottola said. “When all these guys are throwing 100 nowadays and you’re playing time is inconsistent, and you know you may get sent down, and you know you may not be in the lineup, and may get pinch-hit for, that messes with you mentally and gets you tentative and that one click magnifies everything.
“The thing that’s underrated about him is he can flat out hit. That’s what we knew coming in and that’s why, when I talked to the front office about our goals with this guy, they said don’t touch him. If he just repeats the exact same angle and strike zone command, we will take that guy with no changes.”
Contact John Romano at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.