By Jason Shetler
A few years ago, Elias Diaz was establishing himself as one of the top catching prospects in the Pirates system. Not only that, but most baseball publications regarded him as the best defensive catcher in the minors.
Diaz arrived to Pittsburgh in 2015 as a September call up to serve as a third catcher. His chances of being a starting catcher were put on hold, as the Pirates and Francisco Cervelli came to terms on a three-year extension in May of 2016.
With injuries to Cervelli each of the past two seasons, Diaz has gotten his opportunity to catch for the Pirates, especially last year, when he started half of the time. His offensive numbers in 2017 were very anemic, posting just a .265 on base percentage, along with an oWAR of -0.5 in 200 plate appearances. The defense however remained strong, as he put up a 30% caught stealing rate, which was 3% above league average. Using Pop Time, a Statcast metric that measures how quickly a catcher releases the ball from when it reaches his mitt to when the fielder receives it, Diaz’s Pop Time of 1.93 was better than the 2017 MLB average (2.01). As the 2018 season is about to begin, here’s why it’ll be an important one for Diaz.
Given the injury history of Cervelli, Diaz will be asked to catch more games than a prototypical backup catcher would. While Cervelli is a good pitch framer behind the plate, Diaz is the better defensive backstop overall, in my opinion. His on base ability however is nowhere near the level of Cervelli’s. The league average OBP for catchers last season was .331, which means Diaz will need to hit for a better average and also improve upon his 5.5% walk rate from a year ago. He has added a leg kick to help generate more power, and has three home runs this Spring, so will see if that translates during the regular season. Although Diaz has the defensive capabilities to stick in the big leagues, he’ll need to show the Pirates this season that he can handle himself well at the plate, if he wants to be the regular catcher at some point.