New York Mets acquiring Edwin Díaz in the Robinson Canó trade with the Seattle Mariners may prove to be the best part of the deal.
If there’s one headliner for Friday’s almost-finalized Mets-Mariners deal, it’s Robinson Canó: name-brand recognition, an impressive history, $60 million in accompanying cash. But Edwin Díaz has a very real chance to be the most important part of this trade—because right now, he looks like the best closer in baseball.
There is, reasonably, always a little bit of skepticism about the value proposition for a reliever when looking out longer than a year or two. Díaz is under team control until 2023, but he’s also a 24-year-old fueled by a wipeout slider and a fastball that flirts with triple digits; like any pitcher with that profile, everything that makes him dazzling also puts him at risk of falling apart. In the conversation on overall value, there’s also the fact that baseball is increasingly chock full of strong relief pitching, making it easier than ever for a team to go hunting for quality bullpen help whenever necessary. Throw in the point that a reliever’s value is intimately tied to exactly how and when he’s deployed, and you’re looking at a tangled equation for evaluating a trade. But you can recognize all of those caveats and, at the same time, appreciate the phenomenal reliever who’s just passed hands. Díaz has established himself as one of baseball’s sharpest young pitchers, and there’s an awful lot to enjoy here. The Mets are shifting into win now mode (well, allegedly—time will tell if there’s any truth to the trade rumors about Noah Syndergaard) and Díaz can help them do that in a big way.
Díaz’s first two seasons in the major leagues proved him as a considerable talent, if not necessarily a historic one: a few votes for Rookie of the Year in 2016, followed by a slight step backward in 2017. But his third season (2018) was on an entirely different level. The numbers were so brilliant as to seem a little garish—57 saves (1st among relievers), 0.79 WHIP (1st), 44.3% strikeout rate (2nd), 18.9% swinging strike rate (2nd), 7.29 K/BB ratio (4th), 1.96 ERA (5th), 208 ERA+ (6th). In context? There have been 15 seasons in baseball history by a pitcher who’s done better than a 200 ERA+ and a 7.00 K/BB. It’s a short list of elite bullpen history: Mariano Rivera (twice), John Smoltz, Dennis Eckersley, Craig Kimbrel. Then there’s one pitcher from this season, and it’s Díaz.
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His fastball gets attention; triple-digit heat tends to do that. But Díaz’s slider is the true weapon here. There are plenty of statistics out there to illustrate that, but you can just as easily look at how badly it embarrasses hitters:
That’s about as representative as it gets—big swing, big miss, big strikeout. On Díaz’s slider in 2018, more than half of swings ended up as whiffs. That came out to an opposing batting average of .129; no other reliever has a slider with results like that. In fact, if you wanted to find any slider that effective last year, your best bet was probably the king of the pitch, Chris Sale, who didn’t score quite as high on whiffs per swing (44% to Díaz’s 53%) but ended up with a slightly better average (.113.) The two pitches look different, of course—Sale’s has greater differentiation from his fastball at 80 mph, while Díaz’s hangs around 90 mph—but their results are just about the same. That’s what you’re talking about when you talk about Díaz. A 100-mph fastball, complimented by a slider that’s in conversation with the best of its generation.
Díaz has, to date, been used almost exclusively as a traditional closer. In 2018, 62 of his 73 appearances were in the ninth; he pitched more than one inning just three times and entered with a man on base just twice. That’s becoming a little bit unusual for elite bullpen guys, as more of them establish themselves as firemen or in other flexible positions. But Díaz has thrived in the role in a way that’s essentially unprecedented. His 57 saves—no one else had more than 43—show that, of course. But that’s not the most remarkable measure. No, that would be the fact that 30 of his 57 were in games separated by a single run. The previous league record for one-run saves was 24, by Eric Gagne in 2003. Díaz smashed through that, and he did so in style: 0.89 ERA in 30.1 IP, with 55 strikeouts and 5 walks. He was great in just about every situation, of course, but he was at his lethal best when the stakes were highest. There’s space to argue about just where he finished on the list of greatest pitchers or greatest relievers in 2018, but it’s hard to find room to claim that he wasn’t the greatest closer. The Mets are attempting to position themselves to win now, and there’s no better option to save their chances than Díaz.