ST. PETERSBURG — When Yandy Diaz bounced a ball through the vacated second baseman’s spot last Sunday and —thanks to several Red Sox misplays — raced (relatively speaking) around the bases for a Little League homer, his Rays mates had jokes.
“I had to make fun of him,” hitting coach Chad Mottola relayed. “I said, ‘You’re finally turning into a leadoff hitter.’”
Diaz — with his bulging biceps and well-muscled 6-foot-2, 225-plus-pound frame — certainly doesn’t look the part, not even by more modern, less stereotypical standards.
But he has filled the role extremely well, providing a mix of selectivity, high contact rate, on-base percentage and power that has made him the catalyst for a Rays lineup that has been one of the majors’ most potent.
“We appreciate the leadoff hitter; I’m not going to say differently,” manager Kevin Cash said, “but for our roster, it’s who can get the most at-bats in a game.” And that’s him. That’s who we want.
“He’s a very dynamic hitter that doesn’t seem fazed by righties or lefties, has a knack for getting on base, has a knack for hitting the ball really hard. And this year, he’s added the knack of knocking the ball out of the ballpark.”
Diaz presents quite a challenge to opponents.
Consider his ability to cover and handle just about every pitch type and location. His willingness and confidence to go deep into counts (especially in his first plate appearance, which allows other Rays hitters to benefit from seeing what the opposing pitcher has that day) and to take walks. His skills to make consistent, and consistently hard, contact and put balls in play rather than strike out.
Entering play Saturday, Diaz was on pace for nearly 30 homers (more than double his career high), and he ranked fifth in the majors with a .408 on-base percentage. Combined with a .560 slugging percentage, his .968 OPS ranked fourth in the majors. His offensive WAR (an overall metric) per baseball-reference.com of 2.4 was 10th.
A ‘treat to watch’
“He might not be your prototypical leadoff man, but he gets on base as much as anybody in baseball,” said pitching coach Kyle Snyder. “He’s a treat to watch, man.”
As much as Mottola and Cash rave about what Diaz does to drive their offense, Snyder has an immense appreciation from the other side of the challenge he presents to pitchers.
“Really hard, because you have to compete in the zone,” Snyder said. “He swings at strikes, and he takes balls. And the balls that he does swing at, he impacts, especially if he’s in a hitter’s count, which he finds himself in quite often given his plate discipline. …
“So when you have that talented a hitter that doesn’t swing and miss, that hits the ball hard and finds himself in good hitters’ counts, you better compete in the zone and you better get ahead. Because if you don’t control the count and end it in control, more than likely he’s going to scald the ball somewhere.”
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Part of the reason Snyder is so familiar with Diaz’s approach is that he often mentions him in his pre-series/-game meetings with his pitchers.
“It’s funny, I use him as a reference in terms of the elite decision-maker that he is when we’re facing other teams that have elite decision-makers. I’ll say, ‘It’s on par with somebody you guys are afforded the ability to watch every game,’ because that recipe is so hard.”
Diaz, 31, is comfortable in the role and takes on the challenge of getting the offense started, whether at the beginning of a game or when the lineup flips over.
“It’s a big deal,” he said via team interpreter Manny Navarro. “Being the leadoff hitter, my goal is to try to get on base. I know if I can get on base, guys can hit me in. I like to say I’m the head of the line for this team. …
“Not necessarily (the team leader), but for example if you’re in a battle, there’s always that person that’s in the front of the line to lead that battle.”
A couple of the Rays with previous leadoff experience like what they see.
“Everybody in the league knows how good of a hitter Yandy is and that he swings at strikes and gets a lot of walks,” said Manuel Margot, via Navarro.
“As a leadoff hitter people think you’ve got to be fast, you’ve got to do this or do that, but you’ve really just got to get on base. And he does a really good job of doing that.”
Plus, Brandon Lowe said, Diaz is extremely disciplined.
“He’s not going to expand (the strike zone), he’s not going to chase (pitches),” Lowe said. “If it’s not there and he’s not going to crush it, he’s not going to swing at it.
“That is one of the things that I feel like does make him such a good leadoff hitter is he does see a ton of pitches, but he’s not giving up any at-bats in that aspect of it. If he’s taking a pitch, it’s probably not a strike and/or it’s just not a pitch that you can handle.
“He does a really good job of not changing his approach and not doing anything differently,” Lowe continued. “And it’s just kind of worked out that he’s probably the best leadoff hitter in the game right now.”
Much has been made of Diaz’s increased home-run production — except by Diaz. He insists he is just trying to hit the ball hard, but acknowledges with an occasional wink that he at times has been willing to take a swing at driving a ball out.
One theory among Rays officials is that the three-year, $24 million deal Diaz got in January to avoid the arbitration process provided him the security and confidence to take those chances, more comfortable knowing he isn’t playing annually for a contract as he has to this point of his career.
“I’d have to agree with them on that,” Diaz said. “I’m more relaxed. I didn’t come in (this year) trying to do too much. … When you don’t have that contract, you try to play for yourself and your numbers. But they gave me an opportunity to stay here for a little bit, and I want to take advantage of that and help the team win.”
Whether it’s just the additional times over the course of a week that Diaz comes to the plate, as Cash suggested, or the increased number of higher-leverage situations he gets (Mottola notes teams bringing in better relievers when a lineup flips over), the Rays are glad to have Diaz at the top to get things started.
There is, however, something else Diaz can do to become further accepted in the role: He has yet to steal a base this year.
Here are the players in Rays history who led off the most, ranked by starts, and how they did in that role:
Player, Years, Games, Avg., HR, RBI, OPS
Carl Crawford, 2002-07, 365, .288, 27, 158, .744
Desmond Jennings, 2010-14, 329, .246, 37, 119, .721
Aki Iwamura, 2007-09, 257, .275, 12, 78, .733
Randy Winn, 1998-2002, 250, .282, 11, 80, .752
Yandy Diaz, 2019-present, 175, .311, 26, 96, .897
Gerald Williams, 2000-01, 166, .259, 23, 92, .707
Julio Lugo, 2003-06, 159, .285, 17, 48, .795
Kevin Kiermaier, 2014-22, 135, .246, 17, 50, .706
Logan Forsythe, 2014-16, 127, .265, 20, 52, .778
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