INDIANAPOLIS – Elias Diaz was feeling good physically last season with one glaring exception: his elbow.
The rest of his body felt good enough to play every game. But several issues — that elbow being the main one — caused him to miss about half of the season. Diaz had a cleanup surgery on his elbow, which was the reason for most of the games he missed. He later had a cut on his leg that got infected that led to missing a few more games, and his winter league season ended prematurely due to an oblique strain.
But that was last season. Diaz is once again healthy this season and that alone makes him feel pretty good. His performance on the field isn’t hurting his mood either. And now he’s been promoted to the Pirates as Francisco Cervelli deals with a foot injury. This is the third time in Diaz’s career he’s been called up to join the Pirates, though, he’s only played in three games.
So far this season, Diaz has started 15 of Indianapolis’ 21 games, including eight of the team’s first 10 games. He’s hitting well at the plate and his defense, is well, what you would expect.
“I’m 100 percent so I can play every day the way I’ve been doing in years before,” Diaz said. “The second half of last year was hard. It feels really good to be healthy.”
Diaz, the organization’s 14th-ranked prospect, has long been considered one of the top defensive catchers in the minor leagues. He’s playing that way this season and Indianapolis manager Andy Barkett thinks Diaz could be a backup catcher right now for any team in Major League Baseball, and possibly start for some teams.
“Defensively he’s been a major league catcher for us all season long,” Barkett said.
Diaz has thrown out nine of 19 attempted base stealers. He’s allowed just one passed ball and hasn’t committed an error, starting 15 of the Indians’ first 21 games.
That’s all good, but to be an elite catcher Barkett said “forget the blocking, the throwing and the hitting.” Instead, focus on the pitcher-catcher relationship that consists of 180 to 200 pitches a game.
“I think he really wants to be a good player and I think part of being a good player in that position is you have to understand that throwing the fingers down, and the relationship between you and the pitcher, is probably the biggest part of your job,” Barkett said.
Diaz has to be on the same page with his pitchers. That doesn’t happen from the first day they meet. It takes time, patience and communication. Steven Brault previously mentioned he appreciates the ability to shake off a pitch call from Diaz, without his catcher taking offense.
“I have confidence in my pitchers,” Diaz said. “I try to put down the right sign every time, but if he doesn’t like that pitch then they throw whatever they want to throw. We have a plan for the game and we try to have communication and a relationship prior to the game on how we want to attack the hitter. Sometimes they want to throw one pitch and you have to let him throw it.”
Barkett recalled managing Miami Marlins catcher J.T. Realmuto at Double-A Jacksonville. In the first year Realmuto didn’t understand sequences, or do a good job of reading swings and approaches from hitters to attack in later at-bats, Barkett said.
“The second year, J.T. really began applying the game plan, reading swings and trust what he saw, trust his eyes and trust his instincts,” Barkett said.
At that point Realmuto was able to lead the pitching staff, understanding the game, not just “playing” the game, Barkett said.
“Now, with Elias, for a couple of years now, I think he kind of sees the cat-and-mouse game a little differently,” Barkett said. “He just has to continue to grow with that.”
And while there’s more to catching than blocking and throwing out runners, Diaz is excelling at that this season. There have been games when his defense behind the plate has not only saved a wild pitch, but saved runs from scoring.
Diaz’s arm has always been highly regarded and his play so far this season isn’t going to change those perceptions. He has fielded numerous swinging bunts to throw out runners and has thrown out base stealers for a double play after a strikeout.
“He has a great arm,” Barkett said. “We get him at 1.79 seconds, at times, which is ridiculous. But catching is about good footwork. Just like infield play or outfield, you have to have good footwork or otherwise it’s hard to be consistent. Elias’ footwork is really good.”
All of his defensive play is good, but somewhat expected. Diaz has always been adequate offensively, but has arguably turned himself into a weapon at the Triple-A level so far this season. Diaz has batted cleanup in 11 of his 15 games, including the last seven. He’s hitting for a .305/.317/.441 line so far this season. And that comes after he hit .318 in August last season, finishing the year on a high note.
In the past, Diaz has gotten in spurts of over-swinging, Barkett said, but added he’s done a good job of avoiding that this season.
“I think he’s a lot closer [offensively] than he ever has before,” Barkett said. “If you look collectively, his at-bats have probably been the best at-bats any of our guys have taken.”
Diaz is likely the future starting catcher in Pittsburgh, but not until Cervelli leaves. In the very least, Diaz will provide a more than suitable insurance policy at the Triple-A level assuming he can stay healthy himself. Last season Cervelli and backup Chris Stewart were injured at the same time, but so was Diaz.
Diaz has been considered a top prospect for several years, especially defensively. He’s making some strides offensively this year, letting his tools shine through on the field. At this point he’s just waiting for an opportunity for playing time in the big leagues, and might see that if Cervelli’s foot becomes an issue throughout the year.