Tuesday, July 23, 2024
AL EastAmerican LeagueAnalysisMLBTampa Bay Rays

Betting on Biceps: Why The Rays Paid $5M, Former Top Prospect For Yandy Diaz

Photo: Twitter, @Raysbaseball

One home run in 299 trips to the plate with the Indians became two home runs in three innings for the Rays to set the tone for their Wild Card win in Oakland. Trading for Yandy Diaz worked, as trades often do for the Rays. But why were they so sure of this one?

RELATED: Breakout Candidates For 2020 — Infielders

Prior to joining the Rays, Diaz was no guarantee to slug over .400. As a prospect, his power tool was given a 30 with potential to reach 40 on the 20-80 scale by Fangraphs. When people talk about some of the league’s best prospects, they might refer to a tool as “plus-plus.” Well, then this is minus-minus. However, he is still a physically strong athlete, so it could be conceived that there’s room to improve his power. With not much output but a high level of talent, the small market Rays decided to take a big risk on teaching him how to drive the ball better.

Diaz had two clear assets before joining the Rays: strength and plate discipline. The strength speaks for itself just by taking one look at his body, but if that somehow doesn’t convince you, there are numbers to help prove it. At the major league level in 2018, his average exit velocity was 92.1 mph with a hard hit rate over 44%. That’s building on a season in which he hit the ball hard (95+ mph) over half the time.

As for plate discipline, his BB/K has always been spectacular. He has consistently walked over 10% of the time throughout his professional career including several seasons where it reached 16%. Pair that with strikeout numbers that never exceed 20%, and Yandy’s been able to walk about three times for every five strikeouts in each of his major league seasons.

Walks and strikeouts don’t tell the whole story, however. Based on Fangraphs’ plate discipline stats, Yandy is above average at taking pitches outside the strike zone and swinging at pitches inside it. For some context, his O-Swing% (swing% on pitches outside the zone) of 21.4 outpaced Mike Trout and Juan Soto, albeit only slightly, in 2018 before an aggressive pursuit by Tampa Bay. He had also settled below the league average swinging strike percentage of about 10 before a bit of a regression to 9.3% last season.

Here is the whole trade with each team’s acquisitions shown:

TBCLESEA
Yandy Diaz (from CLE)Carlos Santana (from SEA)Edwin Encarnacion (from CLE)
Cole Sulser (from CLE)Jake Bauers (from TB)$5M (from TB)
For Rays: Receive Diaz, Sulser for Bauers, $5M

Prized Symbol of the Organization

For a team that spent about $64 million on their team last year (according to Spotrac), it’s highly unlikely they would be paying Edwin Encarnacion more money to play for the Yankees than they did all but two of their own players (Kiermaier and Morton). That’s roughly seven percent of their payroll being spent on one player outside the organization just to have Yandy Diaz, who had been underwhelming to that point in his career.

Despite all that, a look inside the Rays organization will tell why they coveted Yandy so bad. After a 90-win 2018 where the team ranked among the league’s worst in exit velocity, they sought to improve it — and who better than Yandy, who went on to lead the team in average exit velocity last year? That’s only half of it though: look at the minor league position players Erik Neander has gathered, and you will see that all of the highest rated ones have great plate discipline. So the targets for the future offense of the organization are plate discipline and the ability to hit the ball hard. There may not be a better man for the job within the Rays’ price range than Yandy Diaz.

On to the rest of the Rays’ part of the trade: Jake Bauers ranked comfortably inside top 100 prospects lists before his rookie season, and he had been able to stand out offensively in the years leading up to his 2018 debut. After posting a 96 wRC+ with the Rays, they decided to trade him before his prospect glow diminished any further. With the Indians, his slide continued as he was sent to the minor leagues and amassed a -0.4 fWAR in a playoff pursuit that came up short. As for the righty Cole Sulser, he pitched 7.1 scoreless innings in the majors last year before ironically being DFA’d to make room for Diaz before the season’s final game. His stats look impressive but are aided by Emilio Pagan getting him out of a bases loaded nobody out jam.

One year removed, I’d say the Rays came out of this a much better team than before. They have a much needed right handed bat to insert into their controllable core of impact players at the expense of a player they don’t need and a single payment. By Baseball Savant’s Player Similarity tool, the closest hitter to Diaz who was recently traded is Starling Marte (0.71 similarity). To take him from the Pirates, the Diamondbacks had to trade two potential impact players in power pitcher Brennan Malone and toolsy shortstop Liover Peguero. With contract and positional/defensive differences factored in, the Rays might’ve gotten off easy only having to trade only one player while getting a cheaper, more controllable return.

As long as we’re still in quarantine, try your best to channel your inner Yandy Diaz: stay strong and be disciplined.

Nicholas Lobraico

High school student, former baseball player. Pitching enthusiast. Rays man in a Yankees land. Follow me on Twitter @LobraicoNick