Around this time last year, Cardinals fans were learning how to pronounce Aledmys when they noted his 1.363 OPS through 6 games. Now, the sophomore shortstop is off to another great start.
As a team, the Cardinals have struggled at the plate so far. Their .282 weighted on-base average is one of the worst marks in the league. Dexter Fowler isn’t getting on base yet. And Kolten Wong hasn’t figured out how to hit a fastball. (Seriously, check out that career whiffs/swing number). Despite all of that, the Cardinals still have at least one bright spot in the lineup. Actually, it’s the same one it was last season.
Aledmys Diaz has started the season off on another tear, with 3 home runs in his first 36 plate appearances. Sure, his on-base percentage is a little low, and he still hasn’t walked yet, but the power is there.
Two weeks is too little time to make any sweeping conclusions about the season, but the young shortstop is turning heads again in the first month of the season.
In 2016, Diaz made a name for himself by getting on base at a .453 clip in the month of April. He displayed his strength, too, earning an isolated slugging of .310. Everyone took note at the time because nobody knew what to expect.
Cardinals fans were hoping that Jhonny Peralta would be their starting shortstop. After the injury, there were just questions and a 25 year-old rookie. Soon enough, those same fans were complaining that the same rookie was not hitting high enough in the batting order.
Save for wanting more from Peralta, everything is different this year. Diaz is more well-known, there was never any doubt who would play shortstop, and Diaz is finally batting second. Actually, there is one more similarity: the power. Diaz’s .306 isolated slugging thus far is just four points lower than his April 2016 ISO. Perhaps it’s harder to notice because his OBP is sitting at .286 instead of .453.
Neel Kale noted some batted ball issues for the Cardinals a couple of days ago, and they certainly apply to Diaz. Diaz’s batting average on balls in play right now is just .233. Diaz is hitting the ball hard enough that his expected BABIP should actually be better than average. If the power stays when his BABIP rises, then Diaz could be in for a huge season.
We can’t tell just yet what will happen with his power or how much his BABIP will change. Again, two weeks is not enough to tell much of anything. With that in mind, here are some trends to keep an eye on as the season unfolds.
Groundball Rate Decreasing
Players are constantly finding ways to improve their launch angle at the plate, and that often means decreasing their groundball rates. So far, Diaz has whittled his groundball rate down six percentage points from where it was last year.
While it hasn’t yet translated into more line drives, this is definitely a good thing. Fewer groundballs increases the likelihood of extra-base hits, and more line drives will increase BABIP.
Another interesting development is that Diaz’s pull rate is up for the start of the season. A pulled pitch results in a groundball roughly sixty percent of the time. Nevertheless, Diaz’s pull percentage is up and his groundball rate is down. At least one of those two numbers will regress to the mean by seasons end, but the Cardinals would love it if Diaz could continue getting some lift on balls that he pulls.
Few Soft Hit Balls
I said that Diaz is hitting the ball hard. The truth is that his hard hit rate is actually lower than it was in 2016. However, his soft hit rate is even further below his 2016 mark than his hard hit rate. While these numbers are far from their stabilization points, we should keep an eye on this trend. In 2016, Diaz’s soft hit rate was on the high side. It wasn’t a huge problem, but still noteworthy.
Technically, going from “medium hit” to “hard hit” is much more advantageous than going from “soft hit” to “medium hit,” based on the buckets that FanGraphs set up. But getting less soft contact almost always leads to a player getting into that “hard” tier more often.
With Diaz, the assumption is that his trend in batted balls is a result of more solid contact. If that’s the case, then it’s only a matter of time before that starts translating into more barrels for the Cardinals’ shortstop.
What can it all mean?
I want to stress that we have no idea what it does mean, and can only speculate as to what it can mean. If the trends that Diaz has displayed thus far continue, then a big improvement could be forthcoming. The Cardinals would obviously more from Diaz in the power department, but it could also affect Matt Carpenter.
Assuming the Cardinals stick with Dexter Fowler, Diaz, and Carpenter as the top three in the order, then teams might want to throw righties at the first two batters. Fowler is much more comfortable hitting from the right side, and Diaz bats righty.
A team with a southpaw on the mound should strongly consider switching to a right-handed pitcher when the lineup card turns over. The only problem with that strategy is what happens in the three-hole. Carpenter destroys lefties to the tune of a .374 wOBA against them for his career.
If teams want to throw right-handed pitchers at Fowler and Diaz, then they need a lefty behind them to pitch to Carpenter.
If they do, then the Cardinals are forcing opponents to use more of their bullpen. There isn’t much of a downside to this hypothetical scenario. Of course, the scenario entirely depends on opponents fearing Diaz.
If that doesn’t happen, then teams can keep their lefty in at the top of the lineup against two right-handed batters. If Diaz can provide power from the two spot, then the Cardinals are in a much better position to force opposing managers to make touch decisions with bullpen management.
Photo Credit: Jeff Curry – USA TODAY Sports