KANSAS CITY, Mo. — With each hit, walk, and homer, the aura of invincibility that once surrounded Edwin Diaz has eroded, turning a former relief ace into a giant question mark.
When the New York Mets acquired Diaz last December, team officials boasted about the acquisition. Nine months later, it looks like they made the mistake of buying high off one elite season, failing to recognize the volatility that defines relief pitching.
Diaz, who saved 57 games in 2018, is no longer superhuman. He’s quite vulnerable. The Mets know it. Opponents know it. And, fans at Citi Field and in road stadiums know it, too.
Sources tell Yahoo Sports that Diaz has been affected by the boos that come with failing in New York, but that doesn’t tell the whole story of how a reliever with his stuff goes from elite closer to owning a 5.32 ERA in the middle of August.
His command has evaded him. His slider lacks bite. His confidence may be shaken.
All these factors have the Mets working against the clock trying to repair Diaz with the hope he can help fix a shaky bullpen that has only one standout reliever at the time.
Diaz could be the X-factor for a playoff push or could sink the Mets’ chances.
“This has been a season of highs and lows, luckily I still have a month and a half to prove I can get some results,” Diaz told Yahoo Sports through Mets translator Alan Suriel. “I have been working on some things my last couple of outings that I think I can correct now.”
It’s raining boos in Flushing
The true turning point of Diaz’s relationship with fans seemed to happen in June when Diaz blew a two-run lead against St. Louis, and after the game was suspended due to a rain delay, allowed the game-winning run the next day.
Fans booed Diaz both days after failing to do his job, and they continue to let Diaz know when he is not performing up to expectations.
Hearing boos comes with the territory of being a closer in New York, but not so much in his previous home of Seattle. Diaz disputed the notion that he’s been affected by the reactions he’s received at times in his first year in Flushing.
“Honestly, that doesn’t affect me,” Diaz said. “I always try to keep a positive attitude. Fans can say or do what they want because they’re the ones that pay for tickets, and the media is always going to talk because it’s their job as well.
“I try to do my job the best I can.”
Diaz added that he doesn’t feel any more pressure in New York than Seattle.
“I think it’s the same,” Diaz said. “Us as baseball players know it’s the same game anywhere. We just have to do our job anywhere.”
While Diaz disputes that notion, there certainly are pitchers who have struggled adjusting from a smaller market to the bright lights of New York.
It’s one thing to blow a save in Seattle while pitching for a team out of contention. It’s another to waste a gem in New York in the middle of a playoff push.
Ex-Yankee Sonny Gray is a prime example of a player who thrived in Oakland, and now in Cincinnati, but New York just did not work out for him.
SNY announcer and 1986 World Series champion Ron Darling knows how tough the New York market can be, and said that New York can be the best place to play when you win, and rather unforgiving when a player is going through struggles.
This season has been the roughest of Diaz’s career, and Darling believes that Diaz is lacking the confidence that he had in previous season.
“Despite not having his best slider and not having maybe the best control he can still get by with that when you have to get three outs. But you can’t have that, and lose your confidence, and that’s what I see,” Darling said. “He’s a young man that for maybe the first time in his career he’s really struggled. When you’re with a new team and trying to impress people, it magnifies it so I think that’s what he’s going through now.”
An argument can be made that the Mets have often not put Diaz in a spot to succeed by continuing to use him in tight games rather than blowouts. Diaz has often failed in those spots, which would seem to compound the issue.
Diaz, though, actually views it the other way, noting how he appreciated that the team used him in a tough spot Friday.
Diaz entered a bases-loaded, no-out jam against the Kansas City Royals with the Mets trailing by one run Friday, and allowed the first two batters to reach. Though he couldn’t keep the Mets within a run, Diaz liked how the coaches turned to him in that spot.
Diaz posted a perfect inning in Sunday’s 11-5 win in his first appearance since Friday’s vote of confidence.
“Those situations actually help me because I haven’t been in those situations like [Friday] coming in with the bases loaded, I thought I did a pretty good job keeping the game close at that point,” Diaz said. “It gives me confidence going forward.”
A slider that doesn’t bite
Needing just one more out to give his team a shot to erase a one-run deficit against Washington on Aug. 11, Diaz turned to his slider.
That slider, a wipeout pitch in 2019, may as well be a beach ball for hitters this year.
In what has become a theme this season, Diaz hurled a flat slider that didn’t have any bite, and that hanging pitch landed in the seats courtesy of Victor Robles.
Diaz’s slider is just not the same pitch as last season, and that has played a large role in why a two-pitch pitcher can’t be trusted to regularly record outs.
Opponents only hit .121 against Diaz’s slider last year, but they are hitting .310 off that pitch with a .586 slugging percentage, per BrooksBaseball.net.
“We’re trying to get his slider back to where it was. It’s there, it’s just not there with consistency,” said Mets pitching strategist Jeremy Accardo. “A lot of it’s kind of direction and release point and stuff like that. It’s a few mechanical changes, not so much pitch mix stuff because his stuff is pretty similar to what it was last year. It’s just he has to be able to repeat it.”
Diaz is not the only pitcher to have struggles with his slider – teammate Noah Syndergaard’s slider disappeared for a stretch – with players around the league routinely complaining about the ball, and how the stitches are different this year.
Unlike a starter, though, Diaz is only a two-pitch pitcher, and can only turn to his fastball if his slider is off. Opponents are faring much better this year against his upper-90s heater, hitting .284 against it this year versus .188 in 2018.
The vertical break on both Diaz’s slider and fastball are down this year, according to BaseballSavant.com, meaning they’re not moving like they did last year.
Mets pitching coach Phil Regan said the team has noticed that Diaz is throwing across his body with his slider compared to his straight delivery with his fastball.
That difference in direction results in Diaz’s arm dropping, which flattens the slider. It doesn’t have that down and away action that is needed against a righty batter.
Regan praised Diaz for showing up for early work each day to try to fix his mechanical issues.
“I think we’re going to get it. I can’t tell you when,” Regan said. “I’m pretty confident we can do that.”
Even as Diaz has struggled this year, those interviewed for this story all agreed that Diaz still has good enough pitches to get outs. His velocity is in line with last year with the 25-year-old again averaging 98-mph with his four-seam fastball.
One Mets player said earlier this year that even if players know what’s coming, Diaz’s stuff is that good that he can still strike them out.
That idea raises the question of why batters are hitting Diaz so much better this year if there has not been a decline stuff, and the answer lies in Diaz’s command.
Diaz has already walked two more batters this year than he did last season in 26 less innings and the prevailing sentiment is that he is having trouble locating in the zone while also failing to put enough pitches around the plate.
Combine that with a slider that isn’t breaking the way it should -- and hangs all too often -- and that’s why Diaz’s WHIP is almost double that of last season.
“It’s just that his misses aren’t close,” Accardo said in reference to Diaz’s wildness. “His pitches right down the middle are the same as last year, it’s just last year the pitches that were balls were a lot closer to the plate. It’s that double-edged sword where his misses are too big, and his strikes are too middle.”
Accardo explained that hitters pick up right away that Diaz’s pitches are going to be way off the plate when he releases them, and that allows them to sit on that pitch.
Diaz is not forcing hitters to chase a borderline offering. He’s missing so much they can let that pitch go, which is critical when a hitter sees a slider.
It has seemed in most of Diaz’s poor outings he is quite wild to the point where it seems he’s prone to hit a batter at any point.
Diaz is still generating strikeouts at a pace in line with last year, showing that when he can locate his pitches, he can get outs.
“The stuff is there. It seems like each time he’s made one bad pitch that’s hurt him. A lot of times as a pitcher, you can throw a hanging slider and they pop it up or hit it at somebody,” Regan said. “His case, they haven’t done that, they’ve hit it out. He’s been hurt with it.”
Can Diaz turn his season around?
A great closer should instill one general sentiment when he enters: game over.
His teammates should feel it. His fans should know it. And the other team should know the odds of a comeback are not in its favor.
With Diaz, that fear he instilled last year while saving 57 games and posting a 1.96 ERA and 0.791 WHIP is no longer present.
Even Mets manager Mickey Callaway, a former pitching coach who often goes out of his way to avoid saying anything that can be considered even remotely controversial or negative, acknowledged as much.
“When they’re in that hitters meeting they’re saying, ‘hey this guy has been struggling so let’s go out there and get after that,” Callaway said. “They also know he hasn’t been dominating. You have to take that human element into consideration when you’re playing this game because if a hitter hits off a guy and he’s five for eight, he knows he’s five for eight and the pitcher knows he’s five for eight and that has to go into your thinking. When guys struggle, it’s even harder to right the ship because of that. The other team also knows. It makes it difficult.”
Earlier in the year, Diaz resembled that closer that couldn’t be beaten, ending games rather quickly after he entered, including a notable save in Philadelphia in which he struck out Bryce Harper, Rhys Hoskins and J.T. Realmuto. He looked every bit an elite reliever that night.
Four months later, Diaz can rarely get through an inning without allowing a base runner, and other teams are aware the game is far from over when he enters.
“They watch tape too,” said Callaway, a former pitcher. “So they probably feel a little confident when they go out there.”
For as talented as the Mets starters are, bullpens have become such an important weapon in October that it’s hard to see this team making the playoffs or being a legitimate threat to the Los Angeles Dodgers without Diaz being a major contributor.
Seth Lugo has been one of baseball’s best relievers and Justin Wilson is outperforming his peripherals, but then it gets dicey.
Diaz performing like he did last year would be a game-changer.
“September is a big month for us,” Regan said. “If we can get him going the next week or in September, we’re going to make a run at this.”
If Diaz can turn that corner, the boos he often hears at Citi Field should turn into cheers while the Mets chase a wild card berth.
Diaz believes he can still be that critical piece the Mets acquired him to be.
“One hundred percent,” Diaz said.
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