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Start Yainer Diaz

What does it take?

MLB: Washington Nationals at Houston Astros Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

Remember the movie, The Natural? One of the greatest baseball movies ever.

Robert Redford was the mystery man from nowhere with super-natural baseball skills. He literally ripped the cover off baseballs and hit home runs that turned the stadium lights into fireworks displays.

Yet his crusty, curmudgeonly old manager kept him on the bench until the situation got so desperate that Coach had to put him in.

Currently, Catcher/1B Yainer Diaz is finally getting to play with the injury to Yordan Alvarez, primarily as DH. And no, the balls he hits still have their covers on, although some of them aren’t so far from the light fixtures. But since June 4th, Diaz is slashing .341/.349/.683 with a 178 wRC+ in 43 PAs. (Not including last night’s one-homer game)

The question is, when Alvarez returns, is Diaz going back to the bench? Or if he plays, will he replace the player(s) that need replacing?

Despite playing only about a 13 of the time this year, Yainer Diaz is fifth on the team in wRC+ at 112. He is also sixth in home runs with six in only 114 PAs, or one homer every 19 PAs. Yordan Alvarez has about one every 14 PAs, and Kyle Tucker one every 33. Before last night’s game, in which Diaz hit a home run, he had a 0.5 fWAR rating. If Diaz had as many PAs as Tucker, he would have an identical fWAR rating of 1.3. At this rate, in full-time play, Diaz would be on track to hit about 30 home runs in an entire season.

Diaz’s Statcast numbers look even better. His hard hit% of 47.3% is 67th in the majors out of 364 players with 100+ PAs. His barrel% of 14.3% is 36th, just behind Paul Goldschmidt. And Diaz’s xwOBA of .364 is 43rd in MLB. The hard hit and barrel percentages are second on the Astros, and the xwOBA is third.

We are told that Diaz is a defensive liability at catcher. But according to Fangraphs, Diaz has a positive DEF rating of 1.2 (compared to Martin Maldonado at -2.4). His pop time is 88th percentile. He has thrown out nine batters out of 23 attempts. (Maldonado: eight out of 35) He has zero passed balls. (Maldonado: four)

Not that the rookie doesn’t have some learning to do. He himself has admitted he needs to be more selective at the plate. His BB% is only 2.6%. His outside the zone swing% is a high 50.5%. If you’ve watched the games, you can see for yourself Diaz’s weakness for swinging at eye-level fastballs. Yet, his K% is also low at 16.7%. His contact% is 65.0%. Impressive, considering all the bad pitches he swings at.

Defensively, Statcast ranks Diaz’s framing at a very low 8%. (Maldonado: 5%)

Of course, the Astros have experience with rookies who have wild swing habits—ever heard of Altuve or Gurriel? Selectivity comes with experience, something Diaz isn’t getting enough of. Just think of what Diaz can do when he learns to wait on his pitch.

The question is, when Alvarez returns from IL, does Diaz get new splinters on his butt. Or does he play DH, putting competent hitters like Chaz McCormick, Jake Meyers, Mauricio Dubon, or Corey Julks on the bench? Which is mostly what he is doing now.

Diaz needs to play full-time, splitting time at catcher and first base. I believe that with regular playing time, he will only improve in his areas of weakness, both offensively and defensively.

The Astros are near the bottom in team hitting. Rookie replacement pitchers are quickly regressing. Playoff hopes are evaporating fast as the Astros have dropped to third in the AL West.

Playing the rookie Diaz is somewhat risky, but the status quo is not working. Martin Maldonado has a 56 wRC+. First baseman Jose Abreu is at 65. Times like these call for bold moves, but really, is playing Diaz really that bold? More like a no-brainer. And future-oriented in a season that more and more looks lost.

If not for the stubborn infatuation of Astros Manager Dusty Baker for Martin Maldonado, Yainer Diaz could well be contending for Rookie of the Year. A rookie catcher who is plus defensively and a slugger to boot? How many of those do you see growing on trees? If Johnny Bench were an Astros rookie, he’d probably be sitting in the same bench spot that Diaz has occupied most of this season.

Diaz may not lead his team from last to the championship like the Natural, but seeing him at bat gives way more hope than what we currently have. Sure, he won’t knock the lights out, but he will hit the gas pump plenty more times than the guys in there now.

Start Yainer Diaz. Where he belongs.