Plata O Plomo | The Process Report

Plata O Plomo

With a team that many felt was very close to playoff contention, and a roster bursting at the seams with near-term talent already actualizing, there was never going to be any easy choices for the Tampa Bay Rays front office. Charged with adding impact talent the team had an entire universe of options in front of them, and even with limitless dimensions to explore the team was always going to have to pay a price for the kind of upgrade they required. Plata o plomo. Silver or lead. Riches or life. Which would it be?

Step one was trading from an outfield strength to fill a weakness at catcher. Goodbye Mallex Smith, hello Mike Zunino. The next step was adding a starter that was close to a lock to be good twice through a lineup with hopes for good work beyond. The team chose the money route here giving Charlie Morton thirty million dollars for the next two years and maybe another past that. With two major boxes checked the team turned their sights toward the other, and perhaps more glaring need. It was time to go get a bat.

While the team could have splashed gold on Nelson Cruz or traded talent for other traditional sluggers like Jose Martinez, Nicholas Castellanos, Edwin Encarnacion or Carlos Santana the team chose the human path. In a trade with more twists than your typical rabbit warren the Tampa Bay Rays will walk away having acquired Yandy Diaz from the Cleveland Indians along with minor league pitcher Cole Sulcer. No slight to the latter, but we’re going to focus on the more familiar, though by no means established piece. Those last two names above also switched hands along with a competitive balance pick, and everyone gave each other some money. Well, the Rays didn’t get any, but that is all this trade lacked. Oh yeah, there was one more piece.

After coming over in the Wil Myers trade a few years back, Jake Bauers consistently impressed at the plate as a batter with a patient approach and good power that led to getting on base a lot and collecting plenty of extra base hits. He did all this as routinely one of the youngest players at his level. Above average, but not wildly so seasonal lines often hid his lumpy path to get there. Struggles were common, but more so was Jake’s ability to adapt and adjust without letting those struggles bury him. You can get a feel for this below with this excellent tool from @smada_bb :

Throughout his minor league ascent Jake Bauers showed the ability to make up for weaker stretches by having incredibly hot ones. You can see above, however, that his first run at the show featured a good start, but then a long run of poor performance with few corrections evident. We’ll get back to that in a second, but first let’s introduce the guy the Rays will be getting back.

The aforementioned Diaz has also seen a fairly rapid climb through the minors due to strong offensive performance, but while Jake Bauers just recently turned 23 years old, Diaz didn’t come to America until that age after fleeing Cuba first. For the rest of his life he will be four years older than Jake Bauers. Every day. Every minute. Often age is a proxy for further expected development. Young guys have more time to grow into their bodies, put on some man muscles, and then teach those puppies new memories about how to hit a ball farther and harder. It’s a nice myth, but what if a player doesn’t have much more room for physical growth? If the years of control are the same and each player should show the same mental development as they learn routines and acclimate to the highest level in the universe does that expected physical improvement speak more to hope than likelihood? What if the older guy already has the physical stuff you hope the younger guy eventually attains?

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I made this chart, but I think the picture does more justice. He’s the guy on the right. Muscled up guys like this often hit the ball hard. Something Diaz does more often than most. Frequently, their lack of flexibility brings the downside of contact concerns, but Diaz has ran a better than average rate so far in his career. In fact, you know what, let’s just bust out the charts:

Both players hit the ground running as above average performers with Jake showing the better first step and the much higher peak over his first hundred or so plate appearances. He went through a lull before correcting, and then it was all downhill from there with actual production being impossibly worse. He deserved better than he showed, but he still looked like a below average hitter, and it showed up in reality as a murder scene. Diaz has been on the much smoother course with consistently above average production and peaks that would leave him as something like a 120 wRC+ guy. Theories can abound with why Bauers spun down so hard. I’d imagine he was playing through an issue, and also that the league had started to figure him out a bit without much readjustment being shown. Likely, it’s both and a confluence of other things. Both the good and the bad happened so Cleveland is betting that they can coax more of that out of him now that he’s healthy and without the memory of the recent failure.

The idea that rivals had put together a book on Jake steps to the forefront when you can see his 30% or higher strikeout rate for nearly the entirety of the second half. He brought a strong walk rate with it that helped offset some of the punchouts, but it’s very hard to live at that rate without a bunch of power being part of the tradeoff. This feels a good bit like a player with a very patient approach that worked well in the minors that falls apart a bit once pitchers start to get ahead with little fear of seeing their aggression punished. Diaz came in with that same approach of lots of walks and even a fairly similar strikeout rate, but where Jake saw his climb, Diaz became more aggressive putting the ball in play earlier in counts that led to a much lower walk rate, but little change to the strikeouts. It’s likely he’ll need to continue to refine to find that balance between passion and patience. but for a team that likes to put the ball in play to set up first to third or scoring from second on singles or even to start a runner to avoid a double play that ability to make contact pays dividends. Despite having an extra 100 plate appearances Jake has nearly the same number of balls in play.

Starting the runner looks like a pretty good idea with Diaz who indeed hits the ball as hard as anyone in the game, but so, soooo often on a downward trajectory. Jake has his fair share of rolled over grounders, but he also throws in some pokes in the nitro zone and not anywhere near as many scorched worms. He also pops the ball up a little more and generally doesn’t approach the kind of speed off the bat that Yandy can get to.

You can see some of that here where Jake tends to live in what would be considered more ideal launch angle bands that tend to lead to more liners and good fly balls. You can see some slippage from the initial peak, but he did get a lot of that back as the year wore on. The problem for Jake was that in trying to gain that loft he traded out a ton of bat speed. This is an area where Yandy typically has dwarfed Jake outside of a tighter period in the middle, but plotting this over time we can see how Yandy has fairly steadily increased his launch angle, and it looks to be coming without a ton of giveback in his exit velocity. Since he broke into the league Yandy Diaz has brought his launch angle up 6-9 degrees while continuing to avoid the strikeout and not making a sizable tradeoff in exit velocity. This seems to bode well.

When we look at their production strictly on balls in play (walks and strikeouts stripped out) you can get a sense for how well these guys can hit the ball. Bauers showed the consistently higher peaks early on that can help offset the fact that he strikes out more, unfortunately the second half of his season also shows a second head to the coin. Again, we see he got some fairly rotten actual production out of what were merely below average expectations, but as a first baseman those need to be consistently above average, and often by a good deal. Diaz has shown mostly average or worse production on his balls in play due to all the scorching hot, yet defendable ground balls. The stretch where he showed his peak average launch angle to go with his better run of exit velocity around two lesser prolonged stretches showed a guy that can be one of the best ball strikers in the game. The challenge will be having him consistently be able to hit balls in that sweet spot where they can get down lines and split defenders and roll to the wall.

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The table above shows their total lines, and also broken out by pitcher handedness. Diaz has been much better versus lefties, no real surprise there, though he’s also been pretty close to Jake against righties, too. Yandy will strike out a little more and walk a little less against righties, but acceptably so, while showing very strong rates versus lefties. He shows similar production on contact versus each type, too, though has gotten to more of that against same-handers. In total they’ve ran nearly identical production expectations on contact, but Yandy’s better control of the strike zone has been enough to separate the players by around five and a half runs. That’s a win over a full season, and when you add in that Yandy can play third base and is likely to be a better defender in the corner outfield you can start to see why the Rays were willing to bet big on Yandy.

Both players have a million lifetimes in front of them, and either of them can follow any imaginable path. Many will decry why Tampa Bay gave up on a young slugger, but a lot of that has to do with Jake Bauers being pretty much physically maxed out meaning that age difference is smaller than you would think. Both players have improvements to make, and both are fully capable of making them. The Rays claimed to be seeking a “feared right-handed bat,” and maybe they only got the right-handed part when it’s all said and done. While both players maintain considerable upside, it’s quite possible that Yandy Diaz is closer to unlocking what he needs to do, and in the meantime he’s going to fit like a glove in a philosophy that expects defensive flexibility and a more modern approach to putting the ball in play as often as possible. Good things happen when you make contact, and great things can happen when the ball gets off the ground. It’s not quite the monster bat fans have been clamoring for, but now the team has some more opportunity to give at first base, and there’s a ton of time left for the moves to come.



3 Comments

  1. OTownRaysFan wrote:

    Nice work, Jason. Upon hearing of the deal, I figured that the rays knew pretty much what they were doing – or, at least, had had some strong sabremetric reinforcement from the historical data. I now feel that (if their reasoning followed the same path as your interpretation) a bit more comfortable about giving up the immensely likable and still promising Bauers. Here’s hoping that both players do well into the future, but with the Rays enjoying a more immediate return on their confidence, as well as a higher upside. btw, your “(Open in new tab)”, above, did not generate a hyperlink, and I wasn’t able to open your table that purports to “….show their total lines.”

  2. Jason Hanselman wrote:

    Thanks for pointing that out. I have added a link, though you can also right-click on the image and put in a new tab from there. Thank you for the kind words. This isn’t a riskless endeavor for either team, and each get a player that probably fits a little better. I’ll miss Jake, but I would miss a lot of the guys that might potentially get moved. It’s a shame he’s the target after following him for so long, but c’est la vie avec Rays Way.

  3. rb3 wrote:

    Great work, as always. I’m just concerned (as you seem to allude to as well) about how bulked up Mr. Diaz is. Gosh. He looks like a textbook “sports hernia” and “lat pull” candidate if ever I’ve seen one. I assume teams have developed some sort of preventative angle on these problems, but OTOH whatever sort of proprietary info they have cultivated doesn’t seem to be working very well, either, judging by the continued prevalence of these injuries.

    I remember reading somewhere last year that the Rays were out in front (as usual) in exploring the analytics of keeping players healthy? Haven’t heard much about that lately, but Diaz’s built-out frame may test the limits of what they have worked up so far. Not throwing his body around with Kiermaier’s abandon will help.

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