The Incredibles can be considered a masterpiece of modern cinema. Brad Bird’s 2004 Pixar film follows a family of superheroes in a world that’s openly hostile to their kind. As such, the family is forced to camouflage itself as a normal one. Mr. Incredible has an unfulfilling job. Mrs. Incredible thanklessly raises three kids. At the outset of the movie, we, the viewers, know the positive potential for superheroes from our prior knowledge of popular culture. For some reason, the movie tells us that the existence of superheroes is a bad thing, so we’re left with a major dissonance. Yandy Diaz’s situation in Cleveland was a lot like the beginning of The Incredibles.
In an age of celluloid superheroes, Diaz looks like a real-life version. The “most jacked player in baseball” according to stack.com (the mere existence of this website makes me uncomfortable) has put up minor league numbers of someone with super vision, not super strength. Indeed, his career-low in on-base percentage at any minor league stop with at least 20 plate appearances is .399. In 2018, he split time between Triple-A Columbus and Cleveland, where his OBPs were .409 and .375, respectively.
Unfortunately, like the existence of superheroes, Diaz’s power remains in our collective imaginations. Despite his mammoth yolkedness, his professional career high in home runs in any full season is nine. Even Delino Deshields hit 12 in the minors once, and he is a small, fast player, and he plays like it. You can usually tell what kind of player someone is by their body type, but not so with Diaz.
As you may guess, there have been zero ground-ball home runs in the Statcast Era. Indeed, cold hard data and common sense align on this topic. This is the great barrier separating our reality from SuperYandy, his radioactive spider so to speak. Diaz’s professional ground-ball rates have ranged from the low-50s to the mid-60s. To put that in context, the following chart shows the ten qualified MLB players with the highest GB%, along with Yandy’s 2018 season:
The most valuable player here is Lorenzo Cain, and by a wide margin. As you can see, Cain posted one of the highest BABIPs and walk rates of the bunch, and he finished 24% above average offensively. Combine that with his stellar baserunning and center-field defense, and Cain was one of the most valuable players in the majors in 2018. However, the chart makes it clear that hitting grounders is generally not great for hitters’ production. Without a strong BABIP and BB%, it’s nearly impossible to be above average while hitting that many grounders.
Luckily for Diaz, he seems to be skilled at achieving high marks in both of those categories. We’ve already talked about his SuperVision, and the Steamer projection system expects Diaz to put up a .368 OBP while walking over 12% of the time in 2019. Meanwhile, Yandy’s BABIP is directly tied to his potential to become baseball’s Mr. Incredible.
BABIP has always been an attention-grabbing stat. When it first jumped into the analytical scene, it was dismissed as randomness. The thought was that hitters can’t control where the ball goes, or the quality and positioning of defenders, so we should expect batting average on balls in play to fluctuate with luck, and to an extent, it does. But more recent thought suggests that players do have some control over their BABIP. Cain is much faster than Trey Mancini, so even though they have identical ground-ball rates, we can expect Cain to beat out more of those grounders. Indeed, Cain had 27 infield hits in 2018, while Mancini finished with only 11.
So what other controllable factors can lead to higher BABIP? For one, batters can influence how hard they hit the ball, and they can influence how high they hit the ball; indeed, we find that each of these factors affects batting average on balls in play. From 2015-17, balls struck at 100 mph led to base hits 49.8% of the time, and that percentage only increases with harder hit balls. (It should be noted that that includes home runs, which are not included in BABIP). In addition, each type of batted ball is associated with BABIP performance, as outlined in the following chart:
Diaz has always specialized in that ‘non-flies’ category: during his limited MLB career, just 20.8% of his batted balls have been fly-balls, which is the sixth-lowest during that time-frame. However, not all non-flies are created equally; we’ve already discussed the association between hitting the ball hard and reaching base successfully. Among the 480 players with 50 or more batted balls in 2018, Diaz finished 24th in average exit velocity, just behind the AL and NL MVPs, Mookie Betts and Christian Yelich.
This is the kind of hitter Diaz is as of this winter. He’s a non-fly-ball hitter who consistently makes great contact with an above-average eye and low strikeout numbers. In the field, Diaz had a strong reputation in the minors. Baseball America even named him the strongest defensive third baseman in the Carolina League in 2014. Additionally, throughout his minor league career, he played every position except shortstop, catcher, and pitcher.
Put all of this together and you have yourself a high-floor, multi-positional major league baseball player, which makes his time with the Indians franchise seem peculiar. Diaz began his American baseball career in 2014, and he cruised through the minor leagues as a consistently great hitter. By just 2015, he got his first taste of Triple-A ball, and 25 games into 2016, he was permanently at that level. And then… the Indians never really gave him a shot. For Columbus in 2016, as a 24-year-old, he hit .325/.399/.461, good for a 149 wRC+. No call-up. In 2017, he was even better: .350/.454/.460, 163 wRC+. Finally, the Indians called him up after over 800 extremely successful Triple-A plate appearances, and he fared okay in his cup of coffee. In 2018, he spent most of his time in Triple-A, again, despite his 132 wRC+ in his 120 MLB plate appearances.
For some reason, despite his overwhelming success as a professional baseball player, Cleveland barely gave him a chance to succeed. He’s potentially Mr. Incredible, an extremely strong player with great potential being held back. For one, it seems like Cleveland, and Terry Francona, viewed Diaz’s defense as “a work in progress,” despite countless public reports to the contrary. Maybe that’s the case, but even if we assume Diaz’s fielding isn’t actually as good as those reports make it out to be, I still find it hard to believe that Diaz would not have been a better first baseman than Yonder Alonso in 2018. We must consider that it is possible that the front office knows something about him that would make him less appealing.
To Tampa Bay, Diaz is not just a high-floor Ben Zobrist type, but he also has tantalizing upside. There’s no way of knowing this for sure, but I am willing to guess that the strongest three players in the major leagues are, in some order, Yandy Diaz, Aaron Judge, and Giancarlo Stanton. We don’t know if Cleveland tried to convert Diaz into someone with Judgian power, as John Sterling would say, but we can assume the Indians at least thought about it. Maybe they tried to change his swing and he was resistant. Who knows? There’s little doubt that this is the Rays’ plan though. They’re hoping that Diaz can change his swing a la J.D. Martinez and become SuperYandy, a slugger without the strikeouts. Even if that doesn’t work out, they still end up with a valuable player, and if it does, Diaz could end up as one of the most valuable players in baseball. It will take time before we know if he was one of the best players traded this offseason, but rest assured, he’s already one of the most interesting.
Clinical Research Coordinator at University of Cincinnati, but never will surrender my Cleveland Baseball fandom.