Pitchers Can’t Seem to Get the (A)Led(mys Diaz) Out

Note: the editor of this post played no part in the composition of its despicable title. All grievances should be directed to the author, Craig Edwards.

Baseball is full of April surprises. Players who come seemingly out of nowhere. Albert Pujols was one such player back in 2001. So was Chris Shelton back in 2005, Devon Travis last year, and Trevor Story already this season. As Trevor Story has seen his production decline, another surprise has risen in the form of Aledmys Diaz, the Cuban-born shortstop for the St. Louis Cardinals. While many players have come over from Cuba after having received considerable attention and bonus money, Diaz entered baseball in the United States with much less fanfare. Two years after his signing, he is having one the most surprising — and one of the best — starts to a season of all time.

With few exceptions, Cuban players take an unusual route to professional baseball in the State — due, of course, to the relationship between the U.S. and Cuba. For Diaz to sign with an MLB team presented difficulties. Under the rules at the time of his defection, players from Cuba who (a) were 23 or older and (b) possessed a certain amount of professional experience, were exempt from international bonus pools. When Diaz entered the country in the middle of 2013, he indicated he was born January 8, 1990 (1/8/1990) which would have made him a free agent exempt from bonus pools. Other documentation contradicted that statement, indicating he was born on August 1, 1990 (8/1/1990). Due to the inaccuracy, MLB prevented him from signing for another six months.

Diaz worked out for many teams, eventually signing with the Cardinals to a four-year, $8 million contract in March. By the time Diaz started playing for the Cardinals, it had been a year since he had played competitive baseball on a regular basis. Diaz hit pretty well in 2014 but, due to injury, played in fewer than 50 games between High-A and Double-A — a result, possibly, of the increased workload after a period away from the game. Diaz then started slowly in 2015 — so slowly, in fact, that the Cardinals decided in July they could put him through waivers and remove him from the 40-man roster ,as they didn’t want to risk doing the same to Pete Kozma. With around $5 million remaining on the contract, there were no takers. Immediately thereafter Diaz started hitting, and he has not stopped.

From July 10 through November — across Double-A, Triple-A, and the Arizona Fall League — Diaz received 286 plate appearances, producing a line of .328/.389/.590 and a wRC+ of 165 (not park-adjusted) over that time, along with 14 home runs. Jhonny Peralta was injured in Spring Training, but when Ruben Tejada fell in the team’s lap, the Cardinals sent Diaz to the minors to get more playing time. Even when Tejada was injured near the end of Spring Training, the Cardinals chose to give an Opening Day roster spot to another Cardinals surprise, Jeremy Hazelbaker, opting instead to name Jedd Gyorko as Opening Day shortstop and Greg Garcia as his backup. It wasn’t until Tommy Pham was injured in the team’s first game that Diaz finally got a shot.

He split time at shortstop during his first week in the majors before hitting so much that he could not be denied the starting role. Elias indicates that after recording 26 base hits in his first 52 at-bats, Diaz is the only player since 1900 “with a batting average of .500 or higher at least 50 at-bats into his major-league career.” With three walks and three times reaching base on an error, that means that, in his first 55 plate appearances, Diaz reached base safely 32 times and was retired just 23 times. That seems amazing enough, but more digging reveals even more improbable feats.

Through last night, Diaz had played in 19 games with a slash line of .468/.500/.823 and a 250 wRC+. I wondered if anybody had hit quite that well in their first 19 games, so I went over to the Baseball-Reference Play Index and looked at non-pitchers over the first 19 games of a player’s career. (This could be any sort of game played, including a pinch-running or defensive-substitute appearance.) We would likely find different results at 16 or 18 or 23 games, but as Diaz had played 19 games, so 19 games it was. While not perfect, OPS looked like the best statistic available to compare. Diaz’s OPS is 1.323, right around Barry Bonds‘ fourth-best offensive season.

I started with the past decade (2007-2016), looking at all players’ who’d recorded at least 50 PA (Diaz has 66) over their first 19 games, all within the same season. Nothing. Then I went back another decade. Then another. Then another. I ended up going all the way back to 1913, when the Play Index begins. Not a single player had produced a mark within even 50 points of Diaz. (Note: When I ran the numbers yesterday for 18 games, I found just one player with an OPS to begin their career that was better than Diaz: Willie McCovey in 1959, who hit .418/.473/.821 to begin his career in July and August and bested Diaz’s OPS after 18 games by .009.) It’s pretty safe to say nobody has had an April quite like the one Diaz is having now.

Here are the best 19-game starts over the past decade:

Best 19-Game Debuts Since 2007
Aledmys Diaz 2016 66 29 13 4 3 0.468 0.5 0.823 1.323 250
Yasiel Puig 2013 78 31 9 3 17 0.425 0.462 0.712 1.174 234
Carlos Santana 2010 76 20 13 15 9 0.333 0.461 0.683 1.144 209
Devon Travis 2015 74 25 12 4 12 0.368 0.419 0.721 1.14 211
Chris Dickerson 2008 87 24 15 12 24 0.32 0.414 0.707 1.120 185
Mark Reynolds 2007 80 25 11 8 16 0.357 0.418 0.657 1.075 163
Brennan Boesch 2010 74 27 13 2 12 0.38 0.392 0.676 1.068 183
Jeremy Hazelbaker 2016 58 16 10 3 16 0.308 0.333 0.731 1.064 167
Brett Lawrie 2011 70 22 11 5 13 0.338 0.386 0.677 1.063 186
Corey Seager 2015 81 24 11 12 11 0.353 0.457 0.603 1.060 194
Josh Hamilton 2007 69 17 10 10 14 0.288 0.391 0.661 1.052 163
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference Play Index

Diaz has the best average, OBP, slugging percentage, and wRC+ during the first 19 games of his career of any player over the past 10 years. Only Travis began and ended his 19-game stretch in April. Mining the numbers since 1913, Diaz’s average of .468 is first — topping Bill Mueller by more than 25 points — with Terry Pendleton, Barry Bonnell, Danny Litwhiler, and Yasiel Puig representing the only players to produce a figure within 50 points of Diaz’s over their first 19 games. By OBP, Diaz is fifth, finishing behind two players from the offense-inflated steroid era (Austin Kearns and Bill Mueller). Bonnell in 1977, as well as Sammy Holbrook in 1935, recorded higher OBPs, as well. (Incidentally, that was Holbrook’s only season in the majors, his first 19 games spread out over two months as backup catcher.) Diaz’s slugging mark appears third behind only Jeff Francouer’s magical 2005 and George Scott back in 1966.

Unlike Francouer, Diaz’s production has not come with strikeouts. Diaz has been punched out just 3 times, and only once in his last 16 games. He likely benefits from hitting eighth in the lineup, but he has refused to chase pitches outside the zone. His 24% O-Swing rate sits among the top quarter of all batters and his contact percentage on those swings is 62%, among the top half of players. He is fairly aggressive in the zone (68% swing rate), but makes contact on those swings at a very high rate (94%). Put those together and his 85% contact rate is in the top fifth so far this season.

Whether Diaz can stick at shortstop is still a question, although in his evaluation, Dan Farnsworth noted,

He has enough fielding ability with good range and an average arm not to need a lot of thump, but he still can hit for close to average power. His arm plays up with his release and ability to throw from every angle, keeping him viable at shortstop or any other infield position. At worst he fits a utility profile perfectly, but I can still see him working into a starting role with above-average production if his hit tool fully translates.

Exactly how far down Diaz will fall from these heights is not yet known, but his amazing start means it could be a long while before anybody notices problems in his stat line. Diaz could get another 66 plate appearances per month through July, hit a very poor .244/.273/.312 over that stretch, and still own a line of .300/.330/.440 on August 1 — which would still be decently above average for a major-league hitter, let alone a shortstop.

There are a few indicators suggesting that Diaz will continue to hit at least at a league average rate. Diaz’s average exit velocity is 93.7 mph, among the top 20 (out of 191) for hitters with at least 30 batted balls. That will come down some, but maybe not by too much. Of the 21 hitters last season who recorded 93+ mph average exit velocity through April (94.3 mph avg), all of their respective marks regressed over the rest of the season except for Giancarlo Stanton’s. Still, 16 of 21 hitters stayed above 90 mph for the rest of the season (91.2 mph avg).

Diaz was projected before the season to record a line of .251/.294/.383 and a .294 wOBA. His rest-of-season projection now stands at .271/.313/.423, good for a .318 wOBA and 101 wRC+. If he were to hit those projections through the rest of the season and also qualify for the batting title, Diaz would end the season with a line of .296/.337/.475 and finish pretty close to the best offensive shortstop in baseball. He would not necessarily be the best offensive shortstop in baseball, but his crazy start will have a big impact on his overall batting line, and that start is going to buy him a lot of playing time in the future, even when Jhonny Peralta returns. The Cardinals have Peralta for just one more season after 2016, for $10 million, while they control Diaz through 2021. A lot will happen to determine whether Diaz is the Cardinals shortstop of the future, but he is certainly their shortstop of the present. A lot of players get a lot of attention for getting off to amazing starts. This one might top them all.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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6 years ago

just another craig edwards puff piece

6 years ago
Reply to  adam_ala

Double puff piece. Cardinals AND Get The Led Out.

6 years ago
Reply to  wildcard09

Why would anybody ignore what Diaz has accomplished. How is that “puff?” Hate on the Red Birds if you choose, but to ignore the Diaz start would be disingenuous.

Now it is time for a post on the Cards’ offense as a whole. They lead MLB in OBS, and it isn’t even close.

Dick Monfort
6 years ago
Reply to  Spudchukar