By Joe Veyera
Skepticism was rampant when word came down in mid-May that the Mariners had begun the process of converting the team’s top pitching prospect, Edwin Diaz, into a reliever. For a franchise with little in the way of rotation depth throughout the minors, it seemed like a shaky proposition.
With a plus (and boy is it ever a plus) fastball and an inconsistent-but-solid breaking ball, the rationale from Mariners General Manager Jerry Dipoto was that the chances of Diaz developing a third effective pitch were low, making him an ideal back-end relief candidate. At the time Dipoto openly asked, “What happens when we dump him into a bullpen? Do we have a chance to get that back-end dynamic arm?”
The answer is a pretty resounding yes. But even more than “dynamic,” his start has been downright historic.
With a strikeout of Boston’s Jackie Bradley Jr. on August 2nd, Diaz notched his 50th Major League strikeout after just 25 1?3 innings, making him the fastest pitcher to 50 Ks among all pitchers to make their debut since ’93.
1893, that is.
Let that sink in for a moment.
In nearly 125 years of top-level professional baseball, no one has reached that strikeout milestone faster than Edwin Diaz. Not Aroldis Chapman. Not Craig Kimbrel. Not Dellin Betances. Not Mariano Rivera. Not Trevor Hoffman. Nope, Diaz stands alone.
Sure, it’s easy to think back to closers of the Mariners’ past, with a season or two of success after coming up from the minors only to underwhelm thereafter (J.J. Putz, for instance). But no one has burst onto the scene in quite this impressive a fashion.
That hot start for Diaz also included a stretch between June 28th and July 6th where eleven consecutive outs he recorded came via the strikeout, setting a new team record previously held by Randy Johnson. As of mid-August, Diaz was sporting a strikeouts-per-nine-innings rate of almost 17, putting him in the company of the Chapmans and the Betanceses of the league, and he converted each of his first seven save opportunities after taking over the closer’s role from Steve Cishek.
It begs the question: How has he done it?
Well, a triple-digit fastball certainly hasn’t hurt. After sitting in the low-to-mid 90s as a starter, Diaz has blown away the likes of David Ortiz, Mike Trout, and Chris Davis with the heater.
Now, velocity isn’t everything. Atlanta rookie Mauricio Cabrera has consistently hit 103mph since making his big-league debut earlier this season, and while he’s been relatively successful, his K/9 rate of 8.3 was less than half that of Diaz. Reliever Arquimedes Caminero, acquired by Dipoto from Pittsburgh in early August, can also touch 100, but his results have been middling to this point, notwithstanding the sizzling start to his Mariner career.
Fastballs are fun, but there aren’t many fireballers that can locate it and mix in a second or third pitch as well. Diaz’s slider—which he has credited now-former Mariner Joaquin Benoit for help with—has become a go-to two-strike pitch, with great success thus far. If you’re standing at the plate, unsure whether you’re going to get the heat or a pitch with great movement, either of which can hit the corner for a strike, it’s likely to be a short at-bat.
The rest of the league has quickly taken notice. Tigers closer Francisco Rodríguez told MLB.com last month that Diaz has “electric stuff,” and that “if he continues to locate it the way he’s doing it, everything’s going to be easy for him.” Cleveland outfielder Tyler Naquin also used the term “electric” after Diaz struck him out on three pitches in the 22-year-old’s major league debut, and said, “I wasn’t expecting him to have that much tail on the ball at 100mph.”
That’s what makes Diaz so special.
Well, that, and a level of confidence that many of game’s best late-inning relievers seem to have. After getting the save in his debut as closer against the Red Sox, he was asked whether the experience was everything he expected it to be. His response?
“Yeah, I expected to get those three outs.”
It sure didn’t take Mariners fans long to expect the same thing every time he takes the mound.