Early in the 2020 Major League Baseball season Edwin Díaz blew a save. Twitter was instantly alive with the typical New York Mets fans crying about the overpaid and underperforming flamethrower. After that blown save I didn’t pay much attention to Díaz. I’d wager that much of baseball took the same approach with the Mets closer. As the Mets fell out of legitimate contention one of those reasons had to be that Díaz was still coming up empty as a big city stopper. Most would be surprised to look at Baseball Prospectus’ DRA leaderboards and see Edwin Díaz in the top spot.
DRA is easily my favorite pitching metric. Unlike ERA, FIP, ERA+, and others it tells a more complete story of a pitcher’s performance. Like any metric it can be wrong, Kyle Hendricks has made a career out of outperforming every pitching metric in existence. Hendricks is a different type of pitcher though, the sort of control and soft contact pitcher who exists to confuse evaluation metrics. Díaz is your prototypical pitcher; a hard thrower with a nasty slider who attacks hitters and lives or dies based on his ability to maintain control in and out of the zone. The metrics don’t have any issues with a pitcher like Díaz, they eat his sort up and spin very accurate tales of his triumphs and tragedies. That DRA loves the Mets closer so much in 2020 is ample evidence that he took a down 2019 and rebounded just like the elite pitcher he’s always been.
It’s not that hard to see where Díaz has improved in 2020. Díaz’s approach has always been to live in the zone and challenge hitters to do something with his offerings. Up until 2019 hitters couldn’t do anything with his pitches. He was throwing a 99+mph fastball mixed with a 90mph slider. Hitters typically knew what was coming, but knowing doesn’t matter much when you can’t hit the pitches anyway. Last year Díaz found his pitches sitting in the zone. He wasn’t attacking the zone so much as he was leaving pitches up in the fattest parts of the plate. His Barrel% jumped all the way to 10.1, which was in the bottom 8th percentile of the league. At the same time, his Hard Hit% and Exit Velocity skyrocketed to 45.7 and 90.1 respectively. All of this pointed to someone who was no longer beating hitters, rather he was getting beat on his best offerings.
In 2020 Díaz made one key change to his approach, he started throwing his sinker more. His sinker isn’t elite like his four-seamer or slider, but what the sinker has done is mixed things up in opposing hitters heads about what pitch is coming next. That has allowed Díaz to get away with more mistakes in the zone with his four-seamer and slider. While his Barrel% is not back to his elite pre-2019 numbers, he has improved it massively this season, dropping it by 3.6 percentage points to 6.5. Meanwhile, his Exit Velocity sits at 84.6; the best number of his career and in the top 5th percentile of the league. He’s striking out exactly half of all batters he faces, and while his walk numbers are slightly up, there’s nothing to be concerned with there as the increased walks are due to more deception with his sinker and moving around the zone more.
The main effect of Díaz’s increased sinker usage has been the way it makes his four-seamer harder to identify. His slider has always remained world-class, but his four-seamer is where he was hit hardest last year. It’s also where he’s been hit hardest this year, but his four-seamer has fared much better than it did in 2019. Last season he only missed bats 35% of the time with his main offering, this season that number has jumped to 42.2. The reason is clear, it’s the sinker that hitters are missing 40% of the time and only hitting .143 against.
Díaz currently leads all of baseball with a 1.93 DRA, no other pitcher is below the 2.00 mark. The Mets closer recognized he needed to make some kind of change, he made that change, and he has returned to dominating as a result. The Mets, as per usual, have a host of problems, but their closer returning to his all-world form gives them one more positive to build from. Edwin Díaz has made 2019 a distant memory and he’s put himself in a position to be the best closer in baseball for years to come.
Stats current as of 9/16/20