PHILADELPHIA — It looks like for the first time in a long time, the Pirates might have a backup catcher that is pushing for more playing time.
Elias Diaz came into the 2018 season assured of a Major League job for the first time in his career, and so far, the 27-year-old has taken advantage of every opportunity he’s been given. He went 2-for-5 with a two-run home run on Sunday in the Pirates’ 3-2, extra-inning loss to the Philadelphia Phillies.
Diaz has gotten off to such a hot start, that actually lowered Diaz’s batting average to .409 on the season. He’s also put together a .435 on-base percentage and a .682 slugging percentage for a 1.117 OPS. Obviously, it’s early in the year and that’s a small sample size of just 23 plate appearances, but Diaz did come up through the lower levels of the Pirates minor-league system with the pedigree of a hitter.
He had a 128 wRC+ in High A in 2013, a 129 wRC+ in Double A in 2014 and a 106 wRC+ in Triple A in 2015. Over the last two years, though a number of injuries and an overall lack of opportunities have combined to derail his career arc. When he did get chances, he wasn’t able to take advantage of them, as he hit .223/.265/.314 in 200 plate appearances in 2017 while Francisco Cervelli dealt with a variety of maladies.
But the Pirates showed faith in Diaz by declining Chris Stewart’s option coming into the 2018 season and rolling with Diaz as the primary backup. Their faith in him has been rewarded so far, as his hot start at the plate is just part of what feels like an overall resurgence for Diaz nearly a month into the season.
Diaz said the confidence gained by the Pirates faith in him this offseason — while he dealt with perhaps the most difficult personal situation imaginable in the kidnapping of his mother in his home country of Venezuela — has gone a long way to helping create the production he’s had.
“My mentality has changed 100 percent, because I know I’m going to be here, so I am more confident in my self and what I can do every day,” Diaz said on Sunday.
He also added that after mostly starting as a minor leaguer, the limited opportunities over the last two years have helped teach him how to be a better bench player and put himself in the best position to contribute when he does get a chance.
“Even when I’m not playing, I’m just taking the most swings that I can take,” Diaz said. “I pay attention to the game in the dugout. I talk to the pitchers like (Ivan) Nova and (fellow catcher) Cervelli and I try to call my game from the dugout. That’s valuable. That puts me in the situation like I’m playing. That’s helped me a lot. That’s why we’ve got good communication on the field.”
“I see growth in his overall game,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “There was more experience coming in the door. He didn’t have to try and make the team. Being on the back fill side, he knew the opportunity was there. He’s stayed healthy. He’s continued to work hard. He’s done some good things, put a real nice swing on the ball (Sunday) that he rode out of the ballpark, and a single the first time up.”
Diaz has also done a fairly good job of handling the Pirates’ pitching staff. Trevor Williams threw six two-run, one-hit innings on Sunday to Diaz. He has lengthy relationships with the pitchers that have come up in the Pirates’ system, and has caught Chad Kuhl each of the four times he’s thrown this year.
I wrote before the season that the Pirates should probably find ways to minimize the workload of Cervelli, both because of his continued health issues over the years and the Pirates’ need to determine exactly what they had in Diaz going forward.
With Diaz’s hot start at the plate, it should be even easier for Hurdle to work him into the lineup in a more regular basis. The number of off days in the early part of the schedule has meant plenty of rest for Cervelli, but that will be changing here shortly.
“We like where (Diaz) is at right now,” Hurdle said. “We’re going to find opportunities for him that make sense and also that make sense to keep Cervelli strong and fresh. … We play 13 in a row, four day games. So, that doesn’t mean he’s going to catch all the day games, but how you match them up, there’s going to be opportunities for him to stay engaged and play.”
The Pirates have Monday off, but it’s the lone off day in a stretch of 25 games in 26 days, with the team traveling after a game six times in that stretch. If he can keep up his hot hitting, above-average defense (he has 1 Defensive Runs Saved in 46.1 innings) and his handling of the pitching staff, he should continue to get more opportunities going forward.