Yandy Diaz was already interesting before the 2017 season began. His combination of offensive and defensive skills compelled Carson Cistulli to include him often as a member of the Fringe Five, a group that’s building quite a track record.
He became more interesting early this season, however, when he made the Indians’ 25-man roster and filled in at third base (while Jose Ramirez shifted to second base) in the absence of an injured Jason Kipnis. While with the major-league club, Diaz had an Eric Thames-like out-of-zone swing rate (16.1%), demonstrated a discerning eye, and recorded a swinging-strike rate of just 8.0%. Of the first 42 major-league pitches he saw, he swung and missed only twice.
Now that Kipnis has been activated from the disabled list, Diaz is back in Triple-A. But Diaz continues to offer some interest and remains worthy of attention even as a member of the Columbus Clippers — not just because he has a Jose Ramirez starter kit (contact and on-base skills plus defensive versatility), but because perhaps no professional player could benefit more from adding lift to his swing.
Despite a career minor-league slash line of .307/.406/.411 and the ability to play on the left side of the infield, Diaz was an overlooked prospect — partly because he was a relatively older and lower-budget signing out of Cuba in 2011, but also because of his lack of power.
Diaz is a strong man. Here’s a photo to prove it:
— Muscle & Fitness (@muscle_fitness) April 4, 2017
And here’s the Statcast data to prove it: Diaz’s average exit velocity as a major leaguer was 95.2 mph over a sample of 42 batted balls. That’s elite, ranking ninth in the sport.
But despite those guns and that exit velo, Diaz has never reached double-digit home-run totals at any minor-league stop. Last season, he hit seven home runs over 416 Triple-A plate appearances.
Despite that strength, despite his contact skills, he produced just one extra-base hit in his first 61 MLB plate appearances. One could argue — as this author will do now — that no player in the majors or upper levels of the game could benefit more from getting the ball in the air more often.
Diaz’s average launch angle this season? -3.9 degrees. Yes, that’s a minus preceding the digits. Among batters with at least 50 plate appearances this season, Diaz ranked first in GB/FB ratio by pounding 6.5 ground balls into the turf for every ball lifted. Diaz ranks fifth in ground-ball percentage.
And it’s not a small-sample issue, either: Diaz has posted a ground-out-to-air-out ratio of 1.73 for his minor-league career, compared to 1.82 this season in the majors. Diaz has a swing geared to produced ground balls.
Intrepid MLB.com reporter Jordan Bastian investigated from what sort of
swing changes Diaz might benefit.
Of interest is that Indians hitting coach Ty Van Burkleo doesn’t believe Diaz needs to change his swing plane, but rather his contact point.
“There is plane to the swing … It’s just he catches the ball very deep and he has the ability to accelerate to the ball very deep, which allows for low-trajectory, high-velocity balls off the bat. If there’s one thing to work on with him, it’s just balls in, catching them out front. Same swing.”
Perhaps Burkleo is correct and Diaz can place himself more often in a position to generate more loft and damage.
But there are some influential figures in the Indians clubhouse who do not seem to be buying into the idea that batters can, or should, try to develop a swing plane that will generate more loft. Said Indians manager Terry Francona to MLB.com:
“I think guys learn what they can get in the air, things like that. I [don’t think] you try to change somebody’s launch angle.”
Said Indians left fielder Michael Brantley when asked about lifting balls and swing planes.
“I’m all about learning counts, learning situations, learning pitchers’ tendencies,” Brantley said. “It’s having the repetitions, so you’re able to attack at certain points or getting mistake pitches, or learning what they’re doing and not trying to do too much. I don’t believe in lifting the ball in the air.
“Launch angle means nothing to me. I believe in getting the barrel to the ball as consistently as possible anytime that you can.”
On the other hand, Diaz has shared a major-league clubhouse with Francisco Lindor, one of the hitters who has most improved and increased his fly-ball rate. As a team, the Indians were one of the more fly-ball-friendly lineups last season, though they are in the middle of the pack this season so far.
While no one is trying to teach Diaz to hit weak ground balls in Cleveland, Diaz perhaps does not have Josh Donaldson or J.D. Martinez whispering in his ear, either. But maybe he could use some sweet fly-ball nothings whispered into his ear. It will be interesting to get a sense of how much Diaz is encouraged to change his approach.
With more loft, Diaz could be a quality major leaguer — or perhaps something more. With more loft, he could add power to his collection of plate discipline, contact, and defensive skills. More MLB hitters are getting off the ground early this season. Will Diaz be one of them?