John Harper, SNY.tv | Twitter |
The two worst pitches Edwin Diaz threw in his ninth-inning meltdown on Thursday were 0-2 fastballs that missed their intended location badly, leading to a home run and a double by Maikel Franco and Scott Kingery, respectively.
In some ways that glaring absence of fastball command seemed to sum up the saga of Diaz, a phenomenal young closer for the 2018 Mariners who has been anything but automatic in his first year with the Mets.
"That was the type of execution you see in the low minors," one major league scout said of the pitches in question, which contributed to the Phillies' five-run game-winning rally.
Yet the consensus among baseball insiders that I spoke to on Friday, including scouts, executives, and a former pitching coach, is that Diaz's strangely vulnerable state these days, which adds up to a 9.35 ERA in June, is due mostly to his slider, a wipeout pitch last year that too often this year has wound up being what hitters would derisively call a cement-mixer or a helicopter.
Meaning breaking pitches that do little but spin, as if sitting on a tee for the hitter.
"That was a put-away pitch for him last year," said one scout. "Or it set up the fastball because hitters had to be so conscious of it. But the way he's throwing the slider lately, hitters can sit fastball knowing they can still react to the slider and put a good swing on it."
But why? What's happened to that slider?
Has Diaz fallen into bad habits with his mechanics? Could he be dealing with some level of hangover after reaching career-highs in 2018 with 73 appearances, 65 games finished, 57 saves, 71 innings, and a whopping 124 strikeouts?
Or worse, could it be more than fatigue? Could there be an issue with his arm? Such speculation is inevitable because of how Mets have been so protective of their 25-year old closer, limiting him for most of the season to being used for only one inning, and never more than four outs when when they've relaxed the Diaz Rules.
Furthermore, sources say the Mets did indeed have concerns in spring training about a tender elbow for Diaz, and though there has been no indication of a problem during the season, his poor performance of late has led to more speculation.
Jim Duquette, the former Mets' GM who is now an SNY studio analyst, said on the air after Thursday's blown save that he wondered if Diaz might have bone chips in his elbow, something that would prevent him from fully finishing the slider delivery and getting good bite on the pitch.
On Friday I ran that by a former major league pitching coach, who has a connection to the Mets that made him uncomfortable using his name, and he said a condition like that could explain the lack of action on the slider.
"It can be very subtle, which makes it hard to know for sure," he said. "But if there's something in the elbow that is keeping him from getting that last little bit of extension, or finish, it can make a big difference.
"I'm not saying he has something in there but it does look like something is off with him. It could be mechanical, because at times his arm is definitely late, lagging behind his body, and he's leaving pitches up and away to left-handed hitters.
"But he has such a loose arm that you're used to seeing him create great movement, which makes him effective. I'm not seeing that lately. If he does have something in there, he could pitch with it and not be at risk. But if it's there I'm sure he'd get it cleaned up in the off-season."
Of course, it's also possible that Diaz's slider is being affected adversely by the baseball in 2019, which is not only flying out of ballparks at record numbers all around the majors, but is said to be slicker and harder to throw with spin.
Noah Syndergaard, for one, has complained about not being able to find the feel for his once-unhittable slider, going to far as to say the ball felt like "an ice cube" earlier this season.
In any case, whatever the issue with Diaz's slider, he has proven at times this season that he can blow away hitters if he just locates his 98-mph fastball.
However, one scout made the point that "in general hitters have caught up to high velocity, and Diaz has never been a guy who locates with consistency, which is why his slider has become even more important to him."
Finally, there's the mental side. Whatever Diaz's other issues, the former pitching coach said he believed a lack of confidence had to be part of the problem.
"Those late-inning guys feed off that feeling of being bulletproof," he said. "You lose that and it can affect their feel, their rhythm, their timing, and all of that can affect the delivery. And suddenly you're a little bit out of whack and you're not throwing the ball where you want to."
Maybe it's some combination of all these factors, but whatever the cause, everyone I spoke was sure Diaz would return to dominance at some point. But when?
Nobody seemed confident in saying It could be immediate, as bad as he's going. A month, maybe, but it's probably already too late too matter for the Mets.
And if there is any type of elbow issue at all, we might not see a return to the 2018 Diaz until next season.