By Isabelle Minasian
Early in the 2015 season, the coaches of the Seattle Mariners’ High-A affiliate, the Bakersfield Blaze, assigned their starting pitchers in-game homework.
Each one was given a sheet with boxes for each opposing batter, and instructed to watch the at-bats and fill in a game plan for each player. Most players filled the chart out the traditional way. But when pitching coach Andrew Lorraine looked at 21-year-old Edwin Díaz’s chart, he saw something entirely different.
Rather than highlighting weaknesses for pitches high and inside, or propensities for swinging at anything in the bottom half of the strike zone, Díaz had written things like, “This guy can’t hit me,” “He can’t touch me,” and “I’m going to throw it right by him.”
In sharing this exercise, Lorraine recalls that “there was nothing specific [in the chart], it was just about how he was better than them.”
This incident, as entertaining and illuminating as it was, concerned the Bakersfield coaching staff, who worried they would need to change this mentality to help Díaz become a more successful starter. Fortunately, as the Mariners eventually saw, it was a problem that would solve itself.
Punching a one-way ticket to Seattle
One year later, on June 2, 2016, a warm and rainy evening in Knoxville, Tenn., 2,606 spectators cheered from the bleachers as two Double-A teams, the Jackson Generals and the Tennessee Smokies, faced off.
The Generals, who would ultimately go on to become the Southern League champions, held a dominant lead at the start of the eighth inning when 22-year-old Díaz came on in relief. He threw two scoreless innings, allowing only one runner in the bottom of the ninth with a two-out walk, and Jackson ultimately won, 8-4.
After the game, Díaz was on his way to Subway with his roommate, Bengie González, when his phone rang. He was called back to manager Daren Brown’s office, and four days later continued his scoreless streak against the Cleveland Indians at Safeco Field.
For many baseball fans, and even for many who worked within baseball, the meteoric rise of Díaz, whose nickname is “Sugar,” came as a surprise; a fever dream brought to life amid last season’s surprisingly successful run for the Mariners. However, as evidenced by his self-created game plan from 2015, Díaz’s role as a superstar closer simply makes sense — it just took a little while to get there.
The Mariners drafted Díaz in the third round of the 2012 amateur draft out of Caguas Military Academy in Caguas, Puerto Rico. He grew up playing the outfield with Houston Astros’ Carlos Correa and others of his generation, switching to pitching only after his father insisted. The 98th overall pick was newly 18 at the time, and listed at 6-foot-2 and 160 pounds or 6-3 and 175, depending on which draft resources were consulted.
The highlight video that accompanied the announcement of his selection features a tall, lanky kid in a reddish-orange top and high socks, cap pulled low. His right arm, seemingly devoid of any fat or muscle, whips around in frame after frame, and as he follows-through across his body, his kneecap can be seen jutting out sharply.
Raw talent, with the mechanics to match
Díaz was drafted as a starter, with a low- to mid-90s fastball, the ability to occasionally hit the upper-90s and otherwise inconsistent secondary pitches. He had the raw talent but was young and somewhat erratic, with the mechanics to match.
Jeff Sullivan, then-managing editor of a blog on the Mariners, Lookout Landing, summed up the uncertainty of Díaz’s future well: “It’s easy to imagine Díaz making it as a flame-throwing bullpen arm down the road. It’s easy to imagine Díaz making it as an area realtor.”
Real estate, fortunately, does not seem to be in Díaz’s future. After signing with Seattle, he worked his way through the low levels of its farm system, with two years spent in rookie ball and a year in Single-A. At the start of the 2014 season, he was considered a top 10 prospect in the Mariners organization, and by 2015 he was regarded by many as the top starting pitcher prospect in an admittedly weak system.
During his development, Díaz thrived on positive feedback, sometimes asking his coaches questions that were seemingly obvious in an effort to hear more positive reinforcement. For all that, he has changed since being drafted in 2012; seeking out and manufacturing his own positivity is something that has remained consistent within Díaz’s character.
In 2015, that attitude, coupled with growing fastball command and the development of stronger secondary pitches, contributed to a 3.82 ERA and recognition as the Mariners’ minor-league pitcher of the year.
For all of Díaz’s success in 2015, it was 2016 that would represent the most major changes. Lorraine, who coached Díaz during his 2015 stint in High-A, then moved up with him to Double-A, noted that though Díaz was talented, he lacked a certain maturity. That all changed once he reported to the Mariners’ minor-league camp.
“Going into spring training, I felt like he had grown up a lot. Talking to him, seeing his overall attitude, you could see that he was getting close,” Lorraine said.
The newfound maturity certainly helped when, a few months into the season, new general manager Jerry Dipoto sent down the orders that the Mariners’ top pitching prospect would be converted into a reliever.
“He had to make adjustments,” Lorraine conceded, “but those were easier for him because he had the kind of attitude that allowed him to just let it go for an inning or two. The jump was immediate.”
Díaz — who pitched eight games in relief in 2012 during rookie ball — returned to the mound as a reliever a few days later, in the eighth inning of a 3-2 game against the Birmingham Barons. He struck out two and didn’t allow a single hit, and the Generals went on to win the game.
After the inning, he came into the dugout and turned to Lorraine.
“Is that it?” Diaz asked.
“Yeah, man, that’s it,” replied Lorraine. “What’d you think?”
“Yeah, no big deal. I really like coming in with a lead for my team,” answered Díaz.
High heat, triple digits
The coaching staff initially rationalized Díaz’s conversion to reliever as a way of maximizing his ability to hit the upper-90s, but few expected he would start hitting triple digits.
Jackson Generals announcer Brandon Liebhaber recalls the excitement surrounding Díaz’s increasing velocity after the move to the bullpen, and how he regularly communicated with the Generals’ video scout to confirm the somewhat unreliable readings of minor-league ballpark radar guns. On a day when Díaz registered 99, Liebhaber texted the scout for confirmation and got a one-word response, “hundo.”
That June 2 game would later prove to be the final one Liebhaber would call with Díaz. After 11 2/3 scoreless innings, with three hits and 16 strikeouts over a 10-game stretch, after a total of one month of relief work, the Mariners’ front office decided there was no need for him to spend any time in Triple-A and brought him all the way up to the big leagues.
Much has been written about Díaz’s sensational first season in the majors. For much of the 2016 summer Díaz led the league in strikeout rates, and when Mariners closer Steve Cishek struggled, Díaz slotted in seamlessly as the team’s new closer. (Don’t worry, there’s no bad blood between the two; when Díaz recorded his first save, Cishek was the one to help dump the Gatorade over his head in the post-game interview.)
With the development of a new slider grip, thanks to former M’s teammate Joaquín Benoit, he ended the season with 88 strikeouts in 51.2 IP, an out-of-this-world 15.3 K/9, the second-highest rate among relievers, plus a 2.04 FIP while finishing fifth in voting for AL Rookie of the Year.
Time to shine
This spring, during the World Baseball Classic, on a team that featured Correa and fellow young MLB superstars Javier Báez and Francisco Lindor, Díaz still managed to captivate fans, with a staggering nine strikeouts in 5.1 IP. His scoreless innings in extras during the semifinal game against the Netherlands will be remembered as one of the greatest performances in Team Puerto Rico’s history.
Admittedly, the first month of the 2017 season has had ups and downs for Díaz thus far. He’s blown two saves in eight opportunities while limiting batters to a .200 average and striking out 19 in 13.1 innings through May 7. The M’s initially struggled in every aspect of the game, especially hitting, and it’s been a completely different vibe from last season and this spring’s WBC.
But Lorraine believes the 23-year-old has the talent and mentality to succeed as a closer for years to come. “His combination of ability and carefree nature, coupled with his intensity and focus, is unmatched,” he said. “Edwin lives in the moment, but he works — and when he’s out there, it’s just time for him to shine.”
Featured Image: Stephen Brashear / Getty Images Sport