Battling early struggles, Díaz searching for '22 form

May 14th, 2024

NEW YORK -- Back in 2022, before he tore the patellar tendon in his right knee, underwent emergency surgery and missed an entire season, put together one of the most dominant reliever campaigns in Major League history. Throughout the summer, he was all but untouchable. His entrance music became such appointment television that SNY, which broadcasts most Mets games, ceased cutting to commercial when Díaz entered the game.

The version of Díaz that walked off the mound after the top of the ninth inning Monday was something less invincible. Throughout the first six and a half weeks of Díaz’s comeback season, in fact, he has clearly been a diminished version of himself. Díaz is fooling batters less often and allowing home runs at a significantly higher rate.

Those issues formed the foundation of Díaz’s second blown save in his last four chances. The Mets closer allowed two runs in the top of the ninth inning at Citi Field en route to a 5-4, 10-inning loss to the Phillies.

“The best closers are going to go through it at times,” manager Carlos Mendoza said. “It’s one of those where he didn’t have it today. But he’s a huge part of this team, and he’ll come through it.”

Until Díaz does, though, questions will continue to surface regarding various aspects of his form.

It was also a tough night for Díaz's brother Alexis, the Reds' closer, who blew his save opportunity and took the loss in Cincinnati's 6-5 defeat at Arizona. Monday marked the first time in history that a pair of brothers each blew a save on the same day since saves became an official stat in 1969, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

Control and command
Unlike control, which refers to a pitcher’s ability to throw strikes, command is a pitcher’s ability to hit specific parts of the strike zone. Díaz was elite at that skill in 2022, painting fastballs on both sides of the zone and burying sliders arm-side.

He’s been worse at it in 2024. Entering Monday’s play, Díaz had thrown about 30 percent of his pitches over the heart of the zone, compared to 26 percent in 2022. Opposing hitters were slugging .773 on those offerings.

To be clear, this is a small sample. But when asked about Díaz’s struggles after he gave up two more hits in the ninth inning Monday, the first words out of Mendoza’s mouth were: “Command of his pitches -- obviously.” Díaz agreed that “I think I've been missing my location a little this year.”

Díaz also walked two batters on Monday and hit one with the bases loaded, though he took issue with the second of those free passes. His 1-1 pitch to Whit Merrifield was a fastball that appeared to nick the outside corner, but umpire Gabe Morales called it a ball. Díaz’s 3-1 pitch was clearly a ball, but Merrifield came close to swinging; first-base ump Ryan Additon ruled that Merrifield had held up.

“That changed the game,” Díaz said. “If they called me those two pitches, that was game over.”

Pitch sequencing
Poor command from Díaz, however, was only part of the story. Take Bryson Stott’s leadoff at-bat. While it’s true that Díaz fell behind in the count to Stott, his decision to follow three consecutive sliders with a 2-1 fastball also burned him.

Under different circumstances, Stott might not have been able to catch up to the 97-mph heater an inch or two off the inside corner. Ahead in the count, Stott was able to cheat on the pitch and pull it into the Mets’ bullpen.

Mendoza also referenced sequencing on the pitch that hit Alec Bohm to force in the tying run. After Bohm fouled back a 99-mph fastball, Díaz chose to throw another fastball instead of trying to strike him out with a slider. The pitch ran up and in and struck Bohm on the hand.

Díaz's outing against the Phillies

This, at least, no longer appears to be a problem. Although Díaz has yet to hit triple digits after doing so with regularity in 2022, his fastball velocity has crept up in recent starts. Particularly late in Monday’s outing, Díaz began throwing harder pitches, including one at 99 mph.

Whether he returns to the 2022 version of himself that topped out at 103 mph remains to be seen. But Díaz still throws plenty hard enough to keep teams on edge -- provided he’s routinely throwing strikes and locating those offerings.

“One hundred percent, I fixed that issue,” Díaz said.

The other problems are the ones that still need work. Before Monday, Díaz hadn’t blown a lead of two-plus runs since 2021. He’s doing lots of things he hasn’t done in years.

The Mets are hoping he fixes those problems, too.

“There’s no more excuses,” Díaz said. “I feel really good. I feel healthy. I feel 100 percent ready. I just have to find the form to perform every day the way I want to.”