Díaz's new approach unlocks power

April 21st, 2023

This story was excerpted from Adam Berry’s Rays Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

ST. PETERSBURG -- The ball came in at 79.2 mph and went out at 111.6 mph, seemingly on a trajectory to clear the neighboring Heritage Bank Center if it wasn’t stopped by the second deck at Great American Ball Park.

turned on a curveball from Reds starter Nick Lodolo on Tuesday night and blasted the longest home run of his career, according to Statcast. It sailed a projected 440 feet out to left field. It’s becoming an increasingly familiar feat for Díaz, the disciplined hitter who’s hardly known as a homer-bashing slugger, despite a muscular physique that would suggest otherwise.

Amid all the incredible stats and facts about the Rays’ early offensive rampage, their team-wide development into the Majors’ leading group of home run hitters stands out. One of the most surprising elements? Díaz has hit a team-high six home runs in their first 19 games.

Díaz hit nine homers last year, for comparison, and the sixth didn’t come until Aug. 9. His career high is 14, set in 2019, and he’ll be halfway there the next time he pulls one out of the park.

“I've always had a pretty good swing, and I am pretty strong,” he said Wednesday through interpreter Manny Navarro. “All I try to do is just put all that together, and if I put good swings on the ball, then it's gonna go.”

Díaz is hitting the ball harder than ever. His average exit velocity, albeit in a small sample size, is 94.6 mph, which ranks in the Majors’ 95th percentile. His hard-hit rate is 56.6 percent, up from 49 percent last year.

But he’s always had the ability to hit the ball hard; he just did so on the ground a lot. His ground-ball rate, which sits at 52.2 percent for his career, is currently at 32.1 percent. He’s hitting more fly balls and line drives, and his barrel rate has jumped from a career mark of 6.6 percent to 18.9 percent this season.

So, what’s behind this early home run binge? It’s more about his approach. Few hitters in baseball have the patience of Díaz, as proven by his .373 career on-base percentage and that he walked 18 more times than he struck out last season. He doesn’t like to chase or take ugly hacks. He hates to swing and miss.

Those are admirable traits, but they might have restricted him from unloading on some pitches he could have crushed. So the Rays have encouraged him to be more aggressive when he’s ahead in the count on pitches on which he can do damage.

“There's times to take chances, for sure. He's always got the two-strike approach in his bag,” hitting coach Chad Mottola said. “We're trying to encourage him to try to do that. … We’re trying to still encourage him because of the results we're getting, but it's been fun to watch.”

Diaz's first home run of the season came on a 2-2 count, and Wednesday’s missile to left field was on a 1-1 pitch. But the other four came when he was ahead: 2-0 in two cases, 2-1 on the other two. Díaz can take a chance -- and a big swing -- in those counts, then return to his ultra-selective approach if he falls behind or gets into a two-strike count.

“I think it's more of the count and the situation,” Díaz said through Navarro. “Everyone knows I'm pretty disciplined up there, so I'm just going up there trying to find the right pitch to hit.”

Said manager Kevin Cash: “I'm proud of Yandy for not getting frustrated, kind of sticking to the willingness to go up there and, when he puts himself into a [hitter’s] count, to look to put a charge in a baseball.”

Where might this new approach take him? Could he suddenly, at age 31, develop into a 25- or 30-homer hitter?

“We don't think about that one,” Díaz said, smiling.