The anticipated news produced decidedly unmixed feelings for Joe Espada, the Astros’ bench coach who worked for Team Puerto Rico in last year’s World Baseball Classic and experienced the pleasure of being Edwin Diaz’s teammate.
“If this trade goes down, I’m excited,” Espada, the Yankees’ former third-base coach, said Friday in a telephone interview. “I’m excited for him, and also that we wouldn’t have to face him next year.”
“This trade” is of course the megadeal that would relocate Diaz and his even better known teammate, Robinson Cano, from the Mariners to the Mets in 2019 in return for five players. Mets rookie general manager Brodie Van Wagenen has made his first deal a franchise-shaking doozy, one that could go quite the distance in determining whether the Mets’ questionable hire succeeds.
If the deal goes through, as widely expected, the Mets will agree to take on the ex-Yankee Cano, 36 and less than a year removed from an 80-game suspension for an illegal performance-enhancing drug offense, and pay him an average of eight figures through his age-40 season. They will give up two of their best prospects in pitcher Justin Dunn and outfielder Jarred Kelenic, as well as Jay Bruce and Anthony Swarzak, both of whom excelled in 2017 before stumbling last year, and relief pitcher Gerson Bautista.
They will assume these considerable risks because they’re getting Diaz, the 2018 Mariano Rivera AL Reliever of the Year — who, by virtue of his youth, will cost a fraction of what his equivalents and inferiors will receive on the open market this winter and who won’t be eligible for free agency until after 2022. If Diaz can even approach the statistical excellence he exhibited last season — and, no small thing, prove he can handle the scrutiny of closing in New York — he can mitigate many of this trade’s other concerns.
Because, man, was Diaz something else this past season. So much so that even his friends in the AL can’t wait to not see him anymore.
“Undoubtedly, I think that’s the greatest season I’ve ever seen a pitcher put together,” said Mel Stottlemyre Jr., the Mariners’ pitching coach from 2016-18 and a big league coach for seven seasons overall.
The 2018 Mariners exceeded their run differential by 12 wins, and Diaz arguably can take the most credit for that impressive disparity. The 24-year-old registered 57 saves, tying Bobby Thigpen (1990) for the second-highest single-season total in baseball history behind the 62 Francisco Rodriguez tallied for the Angels in 2008. Diaz set his own record with 27 saves recorded upon entering the game with a one-run lead.
He blew just four save chances, and in all of those, he allowed the opponent to only tie the game. The Mariners proceeded to win all four of those games, meaning they went 61-0 when they handed Diaz a save opportunity.
In 73 ¹/₃ innings pitched, Diaz struck out 124 and walked 17, a 7.29 ratio that the great Rivera exceeded just twice in 19 years. Only the Dodgers’ Eric Gagne, in both 2002 and 2003, had put up at least 50 saves and 100 Ks in the same season. Is it any wonder Diaz received support for both the AL Cy Young Award (eighth place) and the AL Most Valuable Player honor (18th place)?
“He had everything working for him this year,” said Espada, whose Astros managed a .303 OPS against Diaz in 27 plate appearances over eight games and .756 against everyone else. “He was really lights out.”
The most encouraging news for Mets fans? Diaz didn’t emerge from oblivion to produce a potential one-hit wonder. Though 2018 established a new peak for him, it marked a continuation of what he already had displayed. Thanks to a lethal fastball-slider combination, he already has 109 career saves on his ledger, attained via an outstanding 156 ERA+ in 188 games totaling 191 innings.
“This is a young kid that came to the big leagues when he only had a month of bullpen experience at the Double-A level,” Stottlemyre said. “Just from where he’s come up and where he is now, the feel for his stuff … Everybody knew that he had wipeout stuff, but it takes players time to put things together. The first couple years, I saw a lot of spots where young pitchers start to panic and are unsure. This entire year, from spring training on, he had the calmness and the confidence and the ability to slow the game down.”
The key to elevating from, let’s say, a B-plus to an A-plus? In addition to growing mentally from his reps, Diaz grew his fastball. Not its velocity — it increased slightly from an average of 97.77 mph to 98.01, as per Brooks Baseball — but rather its quality and efficiency.
“We really studied the Trackman to see where his best stuff played,” Stottlemyre said. “He would elevate his fastball and get a lot of swings and misses on fastballs in the zone. He threw more strikes and got more confidence.”
Diaz threw his fastball for strikes 50.8 percent of the time in 2018, up from 47.5 percent in 2017, according to MLB.com. He located 56.4 percent of his fastballs within the strike zone after doing so 52.7 percent of the time the year before.
Consequently, Diaz’s fastball pitch value, as calculated by FanGraphs, skyrocketed from 2.2 runs in 2017 to 13.8 last year.
“His fastball command got him in good counts and in and out of at-bats quickly,” Stottlemyre said “Check out his average pitches per inning.”
The Post acquiesced and verified Stottlemyre’s claims: In 2017, Diaz threw 1,172 pitches over 66 innings, an average of 17.8 pitches per inning. This past season, he threw 1,171 pitches over his 73 ¹/₃ frames, an average of 16 pitches per inning. His walks dropped from 32 to the aforementioned 17, and he halved his gopher balls from 10 to 5.
The improved fastball led to Diaz using his slider more frequently (37.3 percent, up from 31.3 percent) and more successfully (a 53.8 whiff percentage, up from 46.5 percent).
“That slider has come a long way in terms of the shape and the finish, and definitely its consistency in the zone,” Stottlemyre said. “Last year, he would throw a lot of them in and out of the zone. This year, if he came in with a three-run lead, he would tell me, ‘I’m not going to show my slider until I need it.’ He would go and try to bury guys with his fastball.
“But with a one-run lead, against the middle of the lineup of [someone like] the Astros, he’d lean on his out pitches.”
“The slider is his put-away pitch,” Espada said. “It looks very similar to his fastball.”
It’s undeniable Diaz will bring elite stuff, assuming good health, to Queens. What is up for debate is whether he’ll bring a mentality to match. Though his detractors are difficult to locate here at the starting line.
“He handled the WBC really well,” Espada said. “I know that it’s a high level of competition, but it’s nothing like closing a game in New York. It brings a different level of intensity, of focus. But if somebody can do it, this kid can do it. This kid is fearless.”
“I think the key is he’s gone out and had bad games and struggled like all players do, and I’ve seen him get back on the horse like it never even happened,” Stottlemyre said. “They always say you’ve got to have a short memory, and he’s done that.”
Or, as articulated by Noel Sevilla, the scout who signed Diaz for the Mariners, “He has a big set of cojones.”
Many have espoused similar sentiments about Van Wagenen as word of these trade discussions became public. If Diaz lives up to his hype, he’ll help his new boss, also a stranger to this fishbowl, do the same.
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