By Jordan Shusterman
FOX Sports MLB Writer
When it comes to plate discipline and mastering the strike zone, Juan Soto is in a league of his own.
His supernatural ability to discern balls from strikes and unleash his picturesque swing at the pitches on which he can do the most damage is what makes him a generational hitter. It’s also why he can be hitting .249 and still net an enormous prospect haul in what has been called by the very GM that made the deal “one of the biggest trades in baseball history.”
As baseball has become more whiff-tolerant over the past decade, it has become increasingly rare for even some of the best hitters to draw free passes at the same rate that they strike out. In 2021, Soto was the only qualified hitter in MLB to have more walks than strikeouts. The only one!
Tony Kemp (52 BBs/52 K’s in 397 plate appearances) and Yasmani Grandal (87 BBs/82 K’s in 375 plate appearances) exhibited strong walk/whiff balance as well, but they didn’t play quite enough to qualify. Meanwhile, in 645 plate appearances, Soto drew a league-leading and mind-blowing 145 walks compared to just 93 strikeouts.
OK, that’s a lot about Soto, who has gotten more than enough coverage in recent weeks. And you clicked on this piece thinking it would be about Yandy Diaz. Which was not a mistake! Allow me to explain: Aside from Soto, no player has demonstrated a better walk-strikeout balance this season than Diaz.
Diaz, who just turned 31, has been the most reliable hitter in a Rays lineup that has been decimated by injuries. Wander Franco had wrist surgery in mid-July and isn’t expected back until late August at the earliest. Mike Zunino (thoracic outlet syndrome) and Kevin Kiermaier (hip) each had season-ending surgeries in late July. Manuel Margot has been out since late June due to a knee injury. Brandon Lowe missed two months earlier this season due to back issues. It has been a mess.
Thankfully, Diaz — alongside steady production from Randy Arozarena and breakout performances from Harold Ramirez and Isaac Paredes — has been holding down the fort as the primary third baseman and leadoff hitter for Kevin Cash’s squad, which, miraculously, remains firmly in the AL wild-card mix despite the deluge of injuries.
Signed by Cleveland out of Cuba for $300K in 2013, Diaz was never on any top-100 prospect lists, despite stellar statistical performance all the way up the MiLB ladder. His triple slash was always more OBP-heavy than SLG, and his defensive versatility had him projected as a useful utility man at the big-league level. He represented Cleveland at the 2016 All-Star Futures Game, alongside Clint Frazier and Francisco Mejia (now his teammate in Tampa Bay), and eventually made his MLB debut in 2017.
Despite having seemingly proven all he needed to at the minor-league level, Diaz still spent most of 2018 in Triple-A, making it unclear if Cleveland viewed him as a legitimate part of its future. Such ambiguity was clarified after the season, when Diaz was dealt to the Rays as part of a three-team jamboree trade with Seattle during the 2018 Winter Meetings.
Upon arriving in the big leagues, Diaz became known for something other than his impressive stats: his bulging biceps.
Yet his game didn’t quite match his hulking aesthetic. He did hit the ball extremely hard — his 91.6 mph average exit velocity ranked eighth in MLB when he was a rookie in 2017 — but it didn’t translate into home runs. He had never hit more than nine in a minor-league season, and he hit one across 299 plate appearances in his two years with Cleveland.
This was because of a little something called launch angle, a category in which Diaz has consistently ranked near the bottom of the league. He was capable of crushing the ball — but often into the ground or at angles not especially conducive to extra-base hits. His excellent plate discipline buoyed the slash line, but the power numbers didn’t match the power-lifting reputation.
Funnily enough, Diaz’s introduction to the mainstream came in the 2019 AL Wild Card Game, in which he blasted two home runs to help the Rays defeat Oakland 5-1 after missing essentially the entire second half due to a foot injury. He returned for one regular-season game in September before leading off the wild-card game with a dinger off Sean Manaea and then hitting a second to nearly the same spot a few innings later.
While homers have still not become a major part of Diaz’s game — he hasn’t had a multi-HR game since that wild-card game — he has quietly established himself as one of the premier on-base machines in the American League. Since the start of the 2020 season, his .379 OBP ranks sixth in MLB, behind only the marks of Soto, Bryce Harper, Freddie Freeman, Paul Goldschmidt and Brandon Nimmo.
At the time of the trade, many wondered how Tampa Bay would optimize Diaz, recognizing that there might be untapped potential. It felt reductive but also straightforward: Surely, a smart, progressive team such as the Rays would be able to coach Diaz to, you know, swing up a bit more.
But Diaz never made that significant of an adjustment as far as launch angle; it’s still, on average, near the bottom of the league. Instead, rather than becoming something he’s not, he leaned all the way in to what he does best. He’s still hitting the ball hard (91.5 mph average exit velocity is 89th percentile in MLB), walking a ton (14.6% walk rate is eighth in MLB) and making more contact than ever before (career-high in-zone contact rate of 94.3% and career-high overall contact rate of 87.7%).
It amounts to the unique line of .276/.390/.384 — the rare OBP > SLG triple-slash that actually isn’t all that bad. And it’s not like Diaz’s muscles aren’t capable of producing legit power; when he does get under the ball, he can produce some jaw-dropping dingers.
Still, the patience and precise contact skills remain the name of the game for Diaz. His two walks and zero strikeouts Thursday against Detroit brought his season ratio to 56-to-41 (it was 58-to-43 as of Monday).
Diaz and Soto (96-to-62) are two of nine qualified hitters whose walk totals currently match or exceed their strikeout totals. The other seven are an intriguing mix of accomplished veterans and relative newcomers:
* DJ LeMahieu: 60 BBs/53 K’s
* Alex Bregman: 58 BBs/58 K’s
* Carlos Santana: 52 BBs/47 K’s
* Jose Ramirez: 44 BBs/43 K’s
* Alejandro Kirk: 41 BBs/37 K’s
* Luis Arraez: 38 BBs/33 K’s
* Steven Kwan: 37 BBs/36 K’s
Bregman and Ramirez are simply two of the most well-rounded hitters in the game. Kirk, Arraez and Kwan are contact mavens who have had low strikeout totals at every level on their road to establishing themselves in the big leagues. LeMahieu has rebounded in 2022 in large part due to a career-high walk rate paired with his traditionally low strikeout rate. And then there’s Santana — this would be his fifth such season, the most of any active player besides Albert Pujols with 10. It’s a fun group!
If this list holds, nine would be the most such qualified hitters in a single season since 2011, when there were also nine. Still, it’s difficult to tell if this is a legitimate shift toward this style of player or just a blip.
Teams are going to continue to crave more traditional power production from hitters whose slash lines feature a little more SLG% than players such as Diaz. But I believe the game is better when there is greater diversity in style of play. Whether or not this resurgence of walk-over-strikeout hitters is legitimate, we can appreciate players who do it differently, especially when they are flourishing — and Diaz represents exactly that.
Jordan Shusterman is half of @CespedesBBQ and a baseball writer for FOX Sports. He lives in D.C. but is a huge Seattle Mariners fan and loves watching the KBO, which means he doesn’t get a lot of sleep. You can follow him on Twitter @j_shusterman_.
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