Díaz's goal in '21? To be the 'Yandy of 2019'

February 27th, 2021

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- spent last season in survival mode at the plate.

Battling a hamstring injury that forced him to spend all of September on the injured list, Díaz didn’t fully feel like himself last year. Yet, the corner infielder still hit .307 with a .428 on-base percentage while recording more walks (23) than strikeouts (17) in 34 regular-season games, and he walked more than he struck out in the postseason despite hitting .194 in 13 playoff games.

The muscular Díaz believes he’s capable of more than just hitting for average and getting on base, though. With better health, the Rays believe he can combine his excellent eye with the power he showed two years ago.

“My goal is to be the Yandy of 2019,” Díaz said Friday through an interpreter. “My goal now is just to work hard so that, when I get on the field, that's how I feel -- because I feel a lot lighter this year.”

Like Austin Meadows, Díaz is coming off a season derailed by an injury that made him feel less athletic than he’d prefer. And like Meadows, Díaz based his offseason training program around recapturing the form he displayed in 2019. The 29-year-old said he dropped around 20-25 pounds by changing his diet over the winter, cutting out sweets, sugar and bread while cutting back on rice.

“Thank God, I feel good,” Díaz said. “I did a lot more agility [training] so that I can feel lighter on my feet, and up to this point, I actually feel really good.”

It’s not like Díaz reported to Spring Training looking too lean. He wants to show he’s agile enough to play the field every day, especially at third base, where he’s most comfortable. But he still can’t hide his biceps, and he’s still capable of hitting the ball hard.

Ideally, Díaz will be hitting those balls hard in the air again.

“We’re encouraged,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “I think with health and him being able to build up at a pace where he feels good -- his feet and everything feels good, his hamstring feels good -- we'll see him kind of unload on some balls a little more frequently.”

Díaz is known for putting the ball on the ground, which is why his power surge in 2019 was especially notable. Two years ago, the right-handed hitter posted career highs in doubles (20), home runs (14), slugging percentage (.476) and fly-ball rate (17.2 percent) while reducing his ground-ball rate to a career-low 51.2 percent. Overall, he slashed .267/.340/.476 in 347 plate appearances that season.

Then, last year, his profile changed again. Díaz put together an outstanding average and on-base percentage, showing impressive plate discipline against high-caliber pitching, but he had only five extra-base hits and a .386 slugging percentage in 138 plate appearances. His fly-ball rate plummeted to 7.2 percent, and his ground-ball rate soared to 66 percent.

Díaz was a productive hitter -- his 131 OPS+ was among the team’s best and higher than his 117 mark in ‘19 -- but in a different way than the year before. What happened?

“I think with the injuries that took place for him, and the lack of timing and the lack of reps and consistency that he didn't get because of injuries, he got into a mode that was kind of, ‘How do I survive best?’” Cash said. “And that's a really tough way to play this game at this level. But appreciate that Yandy felt like his best way to contribute, help our team, was to really stay within himself with his approach.”

Díaz agreed with his manager’s assessment, noting that he couldn’t control injuries, but he could determine how he responded to them. Even if he didn’t feel like the same hitter, he found a way to contribute when he took the field.

“Injuries just kind of happen, and your job is to just keep on pushing through,” Díaz said. “I'm going to work 100 percent, sometimes 200 percent, to try to get back and get that strength that I need.”

Cash thinks the slimmed-down-but-still-bulked-up Díaz is capable of doing that this season, which is why he’s referenced Díaz with Meadows and Ji-Man Choi (along with Randy Arozarena) when talking about how Tampa Bay’s lineup can improve when it’s at full strength this season.

Díaz is setting out this year to thrive, not just survive.

“I think we're all confident we're going to see a freer Yandy,” Cash said. “If we can keep him healthy, we'll see a freer guy at the plate that is willing to take some shots to hit some balls in the gaps, knock the ball out of the ballpark, whatever it is.”