How New York Mets closer Edwin Diaz went from Big Apple bust to King of Queens

EDWIN DIAZ NO Forget there was a time before he was a Mets folk hero, before Timmy Trumpet’s horns in “Narco” were the sign of an upcoming New York win, before he was the best closer in baseball.

Just three years ago, more often than not, Diaz would come home from Mets games, rest his head on his pillow and reflect on what had happened in the ballpark: another game, another blown save, another home run served in a turning point. . In 2019, he actively contributed to the Mets’ losses with a 5.59 ERA (seventh worst among relievers), 15 home runs allowed and -0.6 bWAR in 58 innings. After each rough start, the same four words ran through his head, night after night, save after save.

“F—, I lost again,” Diaz told ESPN.

The New York tabloids squashed her performances. Mets fans criticized the trade with the Seattle Mariners that brought him to Queens, lamenting the loss of top prospects Jarred Kelenic and Justin Dunn for an All-Star closer who now couldn’t stop giving up shots to the moon. Critics dismissed him as the latest athlete to wither under the Big Apple spotlight.

Diaz also felt pressure to be the centerpiece of a major trade for a team hoping to compete in October.

“In Seattle, it wasn’t the same,” Diaz said. “I didn’t see the same number of reporters as here. On social media, things were bigger here… The first year was tough.”

Diaz saw two paths for himself: He could let his failures get the best of him, or he could use them as a harsh lesson in how to handle intense pressure, high stakes and outrageous expectations. Over the next two seasons, Díaz began to take the latter route, posting a 2.95 ERA and 38 saves in 89 appearances. But in 2022 he has reached his destiny, with a 1.52 ERA, 0.90 WHIP, 1.13 FIP (best among relievers in baseball) and 101 strikeouts in 53.1 innings pitched.

Now, as much as fans took it down once, they’ve built it up.

“Everyone said I was one of the worst trades,” Diaz said. “Now it’s paying off, and everyone is talking about the opposite.”

SINCE CHILDHOOD in Puerto Rico during his time in the Mariners’ farm system and his first three years in the majors, Diaz rarely struggled, navigating his 98 mph fastball and top-notch slider that made hitters They looked like they had never seen a breaking ball before.

But after leading the American League in saves with 57 in 2018 and being dealt to the Mets in a big trade that December, something changed. The 15 ninth-inning home runs he allowed in 2019 were the most allowed by a pitcher in a single season in major league history, and thoughts of failure echoed through his head.

“I really tried not to think about it every time, but at the same time, it was always there,” Diaz said. “It’s hard to ignore that.”

After the Mets finished 86-76, missing the playoffs for the third straight season, Díaz went home to Puerto Rico to hit the reset button. There he began to rework his launch point, which had become inconsistent throughout the 2019 season. He reached out to Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez, who worked with the same personal trainer, showing him videos of his sessions at the bullpen. Martinez sent him feedback, giving him small adjustments focused on slowing down his weight transfer on the mound.

When the Mets hired Jeremy Hefner as their new pitching coach in the offseason, Hefner traveled to Puerto Rico to work with Diaz.

“I really didn’t have to do much with him,” Hefner said. “It was kind of letting his natural abilities come out. It was just one year that he was bad.”

For Diaz, some adjustments were necessary on the mound, but the biggest adjustment came in his mindset: changing the way he approached game days, how he handled the scrutiny that comes with playing in New York.

“In the long run, failing here may be the best thing that ever happened to him,” said Mets reliever Adam Ottavino, who grew up in Brooklyn and has also pitched for the Yankees. “You feel this fear of failure. It’s a shock to the system. But you fail, you get booed and then you realize you’re fine. You have that moment where it hurts so bad, but then you realize you’re the same.” person and it’s no longer a wonder how he’s going to feel. You already know that’s the worst thing that can hurt me or that can hurt me.”

Diaz took to heart some advice he had received from another Hall of Famer: Yankees legend Mariano Rivera. Diaz first met Rivera at the World Series in Los Angeles in 2018, when he was named the American League Reliever of the Year. More than a year later, while working on his pitch point adjustments, Diaz would remember Rivera’s advice about being a great late-inning reliever for a long time.

“Throw everything away immediately,” Rivera had told Diaz. “If you throw good, clean it up right away. You did good, you did bad, clean it up immediately. You have to come to the stadium tomorrow and you have to go out again and compete.”

DIAZ BUILT HIS confidence, leaning on his family when he needed additional emotional support. The mental work paid off immediately, and Diaz had a strong pandemic-shortened 2020 season, posting a 1.75 ERA in 26 games before appearing in 63 games in 2021 with a 3.45 ERA and 32 saves. Above all, he built on what got him into the big leagues in the first place: his fiery fastball and devastating slider.

“I knew I had the stuff,” Diaz said. “I got the stuff and I’m a player that can be one of the best in the game when I’m at the top. I scrapped everything and went home and got my body ready to go back to normal in 2020 and everything was going well.” in the right direction.”

It has not stopped evolving. Hefner noted an increased focus on how Diaz approached his pregame throwing schedule in 2022. Before games, Diaz plays catch with bullpen catcher Dave Racaniello, and they bet $10 on whether they can hit each other’s glove accurately with every launch.

“If you’re just looking at him, he might look silly, but he’s very intentional and helped him bring practice into play,” Hefner said. “There’s an intent that he takes with his program, not that he hasn’t had it before, but he’s taken it to a higher level.”

And while Diaz has always been a two-pitch shooter, he made a dramatic change in 2022, increasing his confidence in his slider. During his career, Diaz has thrown fastballs on 61.5% of his pitches and sliders on 37.5% of them. In 2022, that balance has shifted, with fastballs at 42.5% and sliders at as much as 57.5%. That helped achieve a career-high 48.4% nose percentage, compared to his 39.3% career rate.

No reliever in baseball has more strikeouts, has missed more bats or has a better independent fielding pitch. He has faced 206 batters this season and allowed just two barrels, according to Statcast. Diaz is on pace to post the fourth-highest strikeout rate for a reliever (minimum 40 innings pitched), having struck out 49% of his batters. This success comes as Diaz heads into free agency this offseason, where some in baseball think he could become the first reliever to sign a $100 million contract.

Mets manager Buck Showalter said the impact of having a reliever like Diaz extends beyond close games. His success on the mound in high-leverage situations reduces anxiety throughout the team.

“I don’t think we ever take what he’s doing for granted,” Showalter said. “One of the biggest things when you’re in a situation is how much is enough. It affects the players and the team. He’s been a guy for us who says enough is enough. He’s made the upside count.”

And while Diaz’s name has been discussed in the NL Cy Young Award competition, Ottavino said the closer should be in the conversation for a different award.

“I think it’s more of a fit for the MVP candidate,” Ottavino said. “He fits that criteria more. I mean, where would we be without Edwin Diaz? Probably not in the first place.”

Diaz has heard this praise from teammates and even players on opposing teams, but he knows that a bad month in September or October can turn cheers to boos, that his historic success in 2022 can be easily forgotten with an ill-timed home run in a spot crucial in the postseason. He has enjoyed the frenetic energy that developed around his Timmy Trumpet entrance, but he doesn’t allow himself to internalize any of it.

“I need to flush the toilet,” Diaz said. “Immediately.”

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