BALTIMORE — What Yandy Diaz has been doing repeatedly at the plate over the last few weeks for the Rays — getting hits and taking walks — has been impressive and integral to the success they have had.
“Yandy’s unbelievable,” reliever Jason Adam said. “He’s so good. He’s been the heartbeat of our lineup.”
But it’s not really anything new.
Though the Popeye forearms and bulging biceps make you think otherwise, Diaz has always been known for his discerning eye, discipline and proclivity to make solid contact.
He is just doing it more remarkably more regularly.
“Just having quality at-bat after at-bat,” hitting coach Chad Mottola said. “The confidence he has, the consistency he’s had, we’ve always seen this in spurts.
“But for him to do what he’s doing now, I think it’s about time the rest of the league kind of recognizes him a little bit.”
Teammate Brett Phillips goes even further, claiming Diaz, between his hitting and defense at third base, is one of the top five most underrated players in the game.
It is hard to imagine people aren’t noticing, given how often Diaz he heads from the batter’s box to first base.
Diaz entered play Tuesday night ranked second in the American League (and third in the majors) with a .408 on-base percentage. That’s a combination of his 53 walks (tied for most in the AL and compared to just 38 strikeouts), 87 hits (in 296 at-bats for a .294 average) and five hit by pitches. His 145 times on base are tied for seventh most in the AL. And he is one of just five big-leaguers with at least 350 plate appearances to have more walks than strikeouts.
Plus, he has been on a roll, reaching base in 23 consecutive starts with just one unsuccessful pinch-hit appearance, which ended a 12-game hitting streak, in the middle.
Over that career-best span, which Diaz points out also coincides with him dyeing the top of his hair gold-ish and using yellow Kinesio tape on his left shoulder, he hit .384 with a .481 on-base percentage and a 1.051 OPS.
Veteran Rays pitcher Corey Kluber saw signs of Diaz’s success during his first limited big-league opportunities in 2017-18 when both were with Cleveland.
“It’s not like he’s found some magic formula,” Kluber said.
What has changed, Kluber said, is the comfort Diaz shows, which does tend to come with more experience and consistent playing time.
“He’s got a really good idea of the strike zone,” Kluber said. “He knows what pitches he wants to hit, and he goes up there and usually doesn’t veer from that. And when he gets it, a lot of times he it barrels it up.”
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The plate discipline, and specifically the confidence to stay that way deep into counts and not expand his zone by chasing pitches, may be what most sets Diaz apart. As evidence, consider his rankings in strikeout percentage (97th percentile); chase rate (95th); whiff (swing and miss) percentage (97th); and walk percentage (98th).
Diaz, 30, said he has prided himself on that, going back to when he played in Cuba and dreamed of playing in the majors.
“I’ve always had a good eye,” he said via team interpreter Manny Navarro. “And if I’m a first-pitch swinger I tend to kind of throw myself off. … It’s definitely my plan if I can’t get a hit then to get on base with a walk.”
Though his lack of home runs is often a subject of conversation — Sunday, he hit his fourth of the season, a 434-foot blast that was his first since May 14 — and occasional suggestions from coaches, Diaz is not concerned.
“Even though I may have the strength and the power, I was never a person to hit a lot of homers,” he said. “I’m more for the average and just line drives.”
The Rays are fine with that. And happy to enjoy the show.
“I think everybody in the dugout just wants to watch him hit,” shortstop Taylor Walls said. “What’s he doing? Try to pick his brain. What’s he thinking?
“And it’s pretty simple, as far as I know. There’s not really much to it. It’s ‘See white, hit white.’ And he does a good job of it. He makes us look like, ‘Why are we thinking about this so much?’ I mean, he literally shows up, doesn’t swing all day and just puts three barrels on the ball every day. It’s fun to watch.”
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