In two half-seasons with Cleveland, Yandy Díaz proved he can hit the ball hard. Over that time, Díaz has had 47.6 percent hard hit rate, and his average exit velocity is at 91.7 mph. It’s a small sample size, but this all checks out for a guy whose nickname is Biceps.
What doesn’t check out is that Díaz only has one home run in 299 plate appearances. Despite his superhuman strength, he hasn’t been a huge home run threat. The most home runs he’s hit in a season is nine across two levels in 2016, and the reason is that Díaz seldom hits the ball in the air. Statcast tracks his fly ball percentage at just 11.3, over ten percentage points below league average.
Díaz is an extreme ground ball hitter; he’s not quite at Ian Desmond levels, but he puts the ball on the ground more than half the time. Díaz’s average launch over the past two seasons is just 1.9, which is something he’s said he has worked on this offseason.
Díaz doesn’t necessarily need to make any changes to be an average hitter. In 120 plate appearances, Díaz slashed .312/.375/.422 for a 115 wRC+. That was bolstered by a .371 BABIP, but a guy who hits a line drive nearly a third of the time will run a high one. Díaz also avoids strikeouts at an above average rate, and projections have him walking 12 percent of the time in 2019.
Now that he’s not blocked by Jason Kipnis, the path to becoming an everyday player is a little clearer, but it’s not without its obstacles. DJ LeMahieu also hits the ball hard, on the ground, and to the opposite field while avoiding strikeouts, but LeMahieu is an everyday starter because of his excellent defense. Díaz, however, will be fighting for playing time at first base with Ji-Man Choi and Nate Lowe. He could also get time as a third baseman and a designated hitter. At each of those positions, he’ll have to be more than an average hitter.
It’s hard not to imagine what that combination of high-contact and hard-hit rate might become though. If Díaz could do more damage in the air, he could become an unstoppable killing machine. Here’s a comparison between Díaz and another player with a similar profile to Díaz:
Yandy Diáz and 2015 Christian Yelich
It’s a bit of an unfair comparison because Christian Yelich and Díaz are the same age, so 2015 Yelich was 23 and already had two seasons of big league experience under his belt. Díaz won’t ever have the benefit of being a left-handed hitter who calls Milwaukee his home, but if Díaz can barrel the ball with more regularity, he can emulate what Yelich did in a Marlins uniform. That would represent the absolute best-case scenario for Díaz.
The key might not be changing his swing or trying to pull more balls. It could be that Díaz needs to make contact with the ball further in front of the plate. Cleveland believe he was allowing the ball to get too deep on him, causing him to put the ball on the ground. One of the changes that Clevelands’s assistant hitting coach Matt Quatraro emphasized was targeting pitches higher in the zone.
He evidently carried this lesson over to Tampa Bay because he hit a high offering for a home run on Friday.
Díaz might be more LeMahieu without the defense than Yelich, but he’ll be an interesting player to watch in 2019.
Kenny Kelly is a writer for Beyond the Box Score and McCovey Chronicles. You can follow him on Twitter @KennyKellyWords.