In a typical 162-game season, every blown game could mean the difference between a team making the playoffs and making an early trip to the golf course. In a pandemic-shortened 60-game season, these failures are magnified ten-fold. If the New York Mets hope to return to postseason baseball—assuming MLB is able to even get there—they will need closer Edwin Diaz to be much more reliable in 2020 than he was in 2019.
The Mets acquired Diaz in a blockbuster trade with the Seattle Mariners in the hopes that he would be the stable presence in their bullpen after the team dealt Jeurys Familia to Oakland at the previous trade deadline. Diaz was coming off an All Star season in Seattle in which he posted a sparkling 1.96 ERA, 1.61 FIP, and 0.79 WHIP with 124 strikeouts and a league-best 57 saves. Those numbers led to an eighth place finish in Cy Young voting and landed him in New York along with Robinson Cano. In return, the Mets parted with a package of prospects—highlighted by top pick Jarred Kelenic—along with outfielder Jay Bruce. The results in year one were nothing short of disastrous, and the trade has since become a sore spot for many Mets fans. Despite this, Diaz could hold the key to the team’s 2020 fortunes, and fans should not give up on him yet.
Diaz did well out of the gate and looked like every bit the dominant force the team hoped they’d get. In the season’s first month, he pitched 10.2 innings across 12 appearances, and didn’t allow a single run while giving up seven hits, walking two, striking out 20 batters, and registering eight saves. The first cracks in the armor began to show in a series with the Cincinnati Reds, where he entered twice in a tied game and twice served up a solo home run with two outs, which resulted in his first two losses in New York. The first of those two homers was to Jesse Winker, who became something of a villain to Mets fans that series both for the home run and for his waving good-bye to fans after making a nice catch for the final out.
Diaz leveled off a bit after that, and his May was generally fine up until his final outing that month. Over his next 9.1 innings, he allowed one earned run on eight hits, four walks, and 14 strikeouts, although he did pick up his first blown save against the Detroit Tigers while trying to clean up after Robert Gsellman. Through May 28, Diaz was sporting a 1.64 ERA, a 2.76 FIP, a 1.05 WHIP, a 38.9 K% and a 6.7 BB% with 13 saves. Then it all came crashing down.
Diaz imploded on May 29 against the Los Angeles Dodgers, and his season essentially went off the rails after that. Called upon by Mickey Callaway to preserve an 8-5 lead in Chavez Ravine, the enigmatic reliever served up back-to-back homers to Joc Pederson and Max Muncy and back-to-back doubles to Justin Turner and Cody Bellinger to the the game up at eight. After intentionally walking Corey Seager and surrendering a Matt Beaty single, the game was lost on an Alex Verdugo sacrifice fly, which was the lone out he recorded. It was a pitiful performance that bloated his ERA to 3.22 on the season.
After settling down somewhat with three straight scoreless appearances, Diaz put up a string of bad outings. In a game that was eventually suspended, Diaz gave up two runs in a rainy ninth with the Mets clinging to a 4-2 lead against the St. Louis Cardinals and then gave up the lead in the tenth when play resumed the next day. Two weeks later on June 27 on the road against the Philadelphia Phillies, he allowed five earned runs in the bottom of the ninth after the Mets scored three in the top half of the frame to take a 3-1 lead. He took the loss again against the Phillies on July 5 at Citi Field after giving up four runs in one-third of an inning before being removed.
The rest of the season went roughly that poorly for Diaz, with a September walk-off home run to Kurt Suzuki and the Nationals serving as the exclamation mark on a season to forget. From May 29 through the final game of 2019, Diaz posted a dreadful 8.00 ERA, a 5.58 FIP, a 1.58 WHIP, a 39.0 K%, and a 9.8 BB% in 36 innings, and finished the year with a -0.5 bWAR. Worst of all, he lost the confidence of Callaway, who went to him less and less as the team crept closer to contention. Seth Lugo became the skipper’s closer of choice, while Diaz was relegated to more low-stakes situations and saw more sporadic playing time.
Heading into 2020, it’s unclear whether Diaz will immediately get his closer job back. The team has a lot invested into the 26-year-old’s future, and his success will be critical to their hopes of finishing what they started last year and clinching a playoff berth. The team’s pen was fortified with the addition of Dellin Betances, who joins Lugo, Familia, and Gsellman. Luis Rojas will likely have a short leash with Diaz, and any early failure could mean the end of his time as the closer. He has already said all the right things and has made it his mission to show he can be depended upon as the closer in 2020 and beyond.
A lot of fans have already turned their back on the fireballer—much of this comes from people angered by losing top prospect Kelenic—but such proclamations are premature. In a weird way, the empty stadiums could play to Diaz’s benefit. As mentioned, he lost the fans along the way last year, and he was often met with loud boos, which could have very easily gotten into his head. Playing in front of no crowds will remove the pressure of feeling the wrath of the notoriously vocal New York crowd.
Diaz is under team control through the end of 2022, so he still has time to prove that he’s the pitcher the Mets thought they had acquired after the 2018 season. Fans should remain open to the possibility of Diaz becoming the shut-down closer we dreamed he would be. The Mets fell three games short of the playoffs last year, and you could point to any number of winnable games that fell on Diaz’s right arm as the reason the team came up short. He will play a critical role this year, and his resurgence could mean the difference between a memorable year and another year fans look back on with disappointment.