Toronto Blue Jays’ Aledmys Diaz has the right traits to be a super-utility guy

 

New acquisition, Aledmys Diaz, has the right stuff to be the Toronto Blue Jays super-utility guy

 

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By now, you’ve heard the news: the Blue Jays followed up the non-tender of Ryan Goins by trading J.B. Woodman to the Cardinals for shortstop Aledmys Diaz. By and large, Jays Twitter seems happier with the deal than Cards Twitter, though that might just be because the Jays are receiving (and the Cards losing) a former all-star with five years of team control in exchange for a prospect with potential (but far from a guarantee). That said, after reading through a number of tweets, he seems to be a man who has left a genuinely positive impression on the people of St. Louis.

 

This idea got me thinking about an article that Ben Nicholson-Smith wrote during the GM meetings. In it, he asked various GMs about the traits they felt might be predictive of a player’s ability to become a super-utility guy. In a nutshell, the consensus advice was to look for selfless, hard-working and athletic players with a track record of offensive success.

 

The more I read up on Diaz, the more I felt that he fit this description reasonably well, certainly more than the vast majority of MLB players.

 

Diaz appears to be a motivated, team-first guy

When Diaz first signed with the Cardinals, the Springfield News-Leader asked the Cards front office about their decision to sign him. They spoke glowingly about the young Cuban’s character: “All of us walked out of there fairly impressed with his work ethic, humbleness and team-first attitude,” [Director of player personnel, Matt] Slater said. “That was what drew us to him, not only with his talent, but whether he would fit into our culture.” Said [GM John] Mozeliak, “He had very thoughtful answers. It wasn’t like fake preparation. He was very sincere.”

 

His success during the 2016 season, seems in part due to his ability to not only provide thoughtful answers, but ask thoughtful questions. In particular, he worked alongside all-star catcher Yadier Molina and Ruben Tejada, the shortstop he replaced, to refine his infield defence. He also spoke to fellow Cuban Yasiel Puig about his own first years in the majors.

 

Now, I can’t say that I’ve spent much time in major league clubhouses, so I’m by no means an expert on whether Diaz stands out in these intangible qualities. But these stories, combined with the general reaction to the trade by Cards fans suggests to me that Diaz is probably one of the good ones. That’s vital in order for a player to become an effective utility player, as they must be inquisitive enough to learn the nuances of multiple positions and selfless enough to accept that they may find themselves in one of many positions (including the bench) on any given night.

 

Diaz has above-average athleticism

Athleticism allows a player to manage the different physical requirements of different positions. It can be expressed in many ways, but Nicholson-Smith and the GMs he spoke to focused on speed, perhaps because it is the most easily quantifiable. Super-utility types like Ketel Marte, Jose Pirela and Chris Taylor all rank in the top ten percentile of major league runners, as measured by Statcast. [Speed is by no means essential for a super-utility player, as demonstrated by Ben Zobrist (66th percentile) and Marwin Gonzalez (73rd percentile).]

 

Diaz had an average sprint speed of 27.9 ft/s in 2017, putting him in the 30th percentile (the league average is 27 ft/s). He was even faster in 2016 (28.6 ft/s), ranking in the 10th percentile. So athleticism seems to be there for Diaz. Moreover, he’s a shortstop, the premium-est of all defensive positions that don’t involve wearing catcher’s gear. One doesn’t make it to the big leagues as a shortstop without a high level of athleticism.

 

Now, looking at his career DRS and UZR suggests that he may not quite be an MLB average defender at shortstop. But shortstop is a hard position, and super-utility players tend to grade out as average defenders once the various positional adjustments are made.

 

Over the last two seasons, 292 players got into 162 or more games. The easiest way to compare players who have played in various positions is Def, Fangraphs’ defensive metric that combines UZR with a positional adjustment. Among those 292 players, Chris Taylor ranked 109th (with a Def of 3.7), Ben Zobrist ranked 137th (-0.6), Ketel Marte ranked 143rd (-1.1) and Marwin Gonzalez ranked 212th (-10.1). Aledmys Diaz ranked 150th with a Def of -1.5, which leads me to be optimistic that he could match those super-utility players defensively if he were to play multiple positions. [Jose Pirela only saw action in 98 games over the last two seasons, but would’ve fit neatly into this group, with a Def of -1.1.]

 

Diaz has a solid offensive track record

Diaz has a career 111 wRC+ at the MLB level, with a .283/.338/.461 slash line. This comfortably meets the level needed to say a player has a good offensive track record. For comparison, the Nicholson-Smith article allowed for the good track record to have come at the minor league level. That his track record was accomplished in the major leagues is a good sign.

 

He achieved that with a very normal BABIP (.299) and HR/FB% (10.6%), so it’s not like that performance was driven purely by luck. On the other hand, he has generated a better wOBA (.339) than xwOBA (.296). That is a bit worrisome, as it indicates that his batting outcomes were a bit better than expected given the launch angle-exit velocities he has generated.

 

Nevertheless, he actually compares reasonably well to the aforementioned super-utility guys. His .299 xwOBA is better than Marte’s (.283) and is basically identical to Pirela’s (.302) and Gonzalez’s (.303). And his Steamer projection for 2018 (94 wRC+) is comparable to Jose Pirela (94) and Ketel Marte (93), while not even that far behind Ben Zobrist (102), Marwin Gonzalez (102) and Chris Taylor (98).

 

Plus, he might just end up being a solid everyday player

I chose to focus on his super-utility potential because his everyday potential has been covered well in many posts produced since the trade. But it is useful to restate the point here: Diaz might still become a solid everyday player. Among shortstops in 2016, he produced the 13th highest fWAR. In his rookie year.

 

None of us know exactly why he chased more and made weaker contact in 2017. Maybe the Cardinals have an idea, which motivated them to move him for a younger prospect. But maybe a very solid player is still in there. If that’s the case, this could be a massive steal for the Blue Jays.

 

 

 

*Featured Image Credit: C Stem- JFtC

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I’m an economics professor in the GTA whose lifelong love for the Jays was reignited by that magical August of 2015 and the amazing moments since.

Jeff Quattrociocchi

I’m an economics professor in the GTA whose lifelong love for the Jays was reignited by that magical August of 2015 and the amazing moments since.