Aledmys Diaz came out of nowhere for a sensational rookie season in 2016. He parlayed a hot April into remarkable staying power, finishing the year with a stellar .300/.369/.510 batting line. If it weren’t for a hit by pitch that broke his hand in late July, Diaz might have bested his fifth-place finish in the Rookie of the Year balloting.
Still, some approached his sophomore campaign bracing for an inevitable letdown, a disappointing follow-up season that would prove last year a fluke. Because of his background as a player designated for assignment as recently as 2015–no MLB club took a chance on him at $2 million per year when the Cardinals took him off their 40-man roster that summer–many assumed Diaz couldn’t be cut out for sustained stardom.
Looking at Diaz now, it’s inexplicable to think he’s the same player who passed through waivers unclaimed. Saturday afternoon at Busch Stadium, he helped put the charge back into the Cardinal bats as St. Louis romped to a 10-4 win over Cincinnati.
It started in the first inning; with a thwack, Diaz put the Cardinals on top when he lined a solo home run into the left field seats–and he was just getting started.
“It’s not a secret that yesterday, we were disappointed with the game,” Diaz said of Friday’s shutout loss. “We came today with a mindset to take good at-bats and hopefully get the lead early in the game, and we did that today.”
Diaz helped the Cardinals do that with his power stroke, which was probably the most surprising element of his game during his rookie year–he knocked 17 homers in 460 plate appearances. Yet in the first week of his encore performance this season, Diaz accomplished a power feat that eluded him all last season: a multi-home run game.
His second home run busted a contested game wide open. After missing a couple breaking balls earlier in the fourth-inning at-bat, Diaz just wanted to keep his hands back and drive the ball. Bronson Arroyo threw him a slider inside off the plate, and Diaz managed to muscle up and somehow keep it inside the foul pole for a three-run shot.
“You aren’t thinking that when you hit it,” Diaz said of trying to woo the ball to stay fair. “Especially with two strikes, I’m just thinking put the ball in play.”
Diaz later ripped a base hit through the left side of the infield for his third hit of the game, pushing his batting average on the young season to .304. There’s no reason he can’t stay in that range as a hitter; Diaz feels his spot in the Cardinals new-look lineup could lead to being better prepared for success when he gets into the batter’s box.
“It’s great,” Diaz said of being sandwiched in the lineup between Dexter Fowler and Matt Carpenter. “You see a lot of pitches with Dexter at leadoff. When I get to home plate, I’ve seen every pitch. Breaking ball, fastball–so that’s good for me.”
The Cardinals’ double digit scoring output was welcomed after the team managed only nine total runs in its first four games. Randal Grichuk had the only other Cardinals home run of the season before Diaz overtook him for the team lead Saturday, and Mike Matheny was glad to see Diaz jump out and be the guy to light the match.
“Somebody had to get it going, and he just decided to do it twice,” Matheny said. Like anyone else paying attention to Diaz’s impeccable ability to hit a baseball, the Cardinals manager is impressed by the 26-year-old shortstop.
“Watch the flight of that second home run he hit,” Matheny said. “To be able to pull his hands in like he did and to keep that ball fair, there are just not a lot of guys that can do that. He has the power but he also has the rest, too, where he can fight through a good at-bat. He’ll stay with a pitch and even stay on a pitch–he gets caught out on his front foot, his hands are still back–he trusts his hands and will fire something the other way.
“Just a very impressive young hitter that continues to improve. I think a lot of it has to do with the gift he has of quick hands. He can see the ball and let it travel. Just a real nice start for him.”
If Diaz replicates his numbers from his rookie season this summer, nobody should bat an eye. His game consists of hustle, smart base running, and pure hitting–with an apparent dose of power that doesn’t appear to be leaving him any time soon.
In a renaissance period for young shortstops, Diaz is often left off the shortlist of young stars at the position. But Diaz proved again Saturday what he has shown consistently since he burst onto the scene last April: he’s pretty dang good at hitting a baseball.