Is Edwin Diaz The Closer Of The Future?

Well, if I had to put money on it, I’d probably say no.  But, think about it, what does “Closer of the Future” even mean?  Presumably, it’s a guy who will be your team’s closer for many years to come, but how many years?  2016 was his rookie season for all intents and purposes, even though he wasn’t up here a full year.  You figure the Mariners have him under team control for at least five years, with arbitration years and whatnot.  If we opt to keep him, we’ll have him well into the 2020’s.  That’s a long time.  A lot can happen to a pitcher in that span, but injuries and ineffectiveness would be the two primary concerns.

The Pre-Diaz Closers ...

The Pre-Diaz Closers …

The Seattle Mariners haven’t had a closer stick for more than 3 years since Kaz Sasaki.  I broke it down here, but it’s important to bring it up again.  Part of that has to do with the Mariners being absolutely God awful since Sasaki left, and it made no sense to cling to a dominant closer when this team had a million other holes to fill, but the overwhelming reason why most of those closers never stuck is because they either got hurt, got terrible, or some combination of the two.

Edwin Diaz, when he first came up in June and July, looked like a wunderkind.  When he took over the closer’s job in August, he looked like the second coming of Aroldis Chapman.  But, as we got into September, we saw some chinks in the armor.  His fastball command would come and go, while teams made a point of cheating to hit that fastball in obvious counts.  His slider was still his strikeout weapon of choice, but without that fastball command, it was easier to lay off of to work counts in their favor.

Diaz blew three saves over the final month, then took one on the chin in Game 161, when he was left out there for 2.1 innings in a do-or-die situation.  He has since admitted that he tired down the stretch, and it’s easy to see why.  He made 49 appearances in 4 months!  Extrapolate that over the course of a full season, and you’re talking about a reliever who would’ve appeared in 73.5 games!  And, a good number of those appearances were more than 1 inning, because our bullpen was such a wreck we frequently needed him to come in during the 8th inning to mop up another pitcher’s mess.

Don’t forget, we’re talking about a rookie, here.  73+ appearances in a season are usually reserved for veterans in their prime; Edwin Diaz turned 22 in March!  He was called up direct from AA!  He was a starting pitcher until the end of April!  With 1 month of relieving under his belt, he was called up to the Majors because the Mariners had no other choice.  Injuries and ineffectiveness among our other relievers necessitated a bolt of lightning to help right the ship.  And, for the most part, Diaz was that bolt of lightning.

He converted 18 of 21 saves, to go along with 13 holds.  He finished with an ERA under 3, to go along with 88 strikeouts in only 51.2 innings.  He posted nearly a 6 to 1 strikeout to walk rate!  He was legitimately fantastic, and easily among the top rookies in the American League.

It was a good year, but I go back:  is he the Closer of the Future?

His raw stuff says yes.  If he works at his craft, gets his strength up so he can endure a full season, and continuously studies the game of baseball, the sky is the limit.  But, he’s a fireballer whose 98+ mph fastball is sure to lose a few ticks as the years go on.  Will he be able to counter that with better command?  Will he pick up a third pitch to use against lefties?  Will his throwing so hard put undue strain on his shoulder or elbow?

See, the problem with the whole (Pitcher) of the Future theory is that EVERYTHING is going against these pitchers.  What’s the shelf life on these guys?  Three years?  J.J. Putz had the greatest season a reliever ever had in 2007, then he got injured in 2008 and didn’t start closing again until 2011.  By then, he was on his third team AFTER the Mariners traded him away.  He closed for Arizona for a couple years, then lost that job, and his last year in the Majors was 2014.

Baseball’s fickle that way.  Right now, on paper, Edwin Diaz is the Closer of the Future for the Seattle Mariners.  But, who knows?  We might look back in 2020 and see a lot of lost potential.  Or, we might see a guy we shipped off for a bounty of high-level prospects.  Or, we might see what I suspect we’ll see:  one of the better 8th inning guys in baseball.

I don’t have this on any kind of authority, so take what I’m about to say with an acre of salt, but I just don’t know if Diaz is The Guy.  I don’t know if he has the makeup.  Quite frankly, I think he’s MUCH better suited to being an 8th inning guy.  I mostly gather that from the many times he’s had to come into games in the 8th inning, when another reliever failed in his charge to get three outs, trying to keep the other team from scoring with one or more guys already on base.

See, a great closer has to have it mentally.  It’s why you RARELY see rookie closers, particularly in contending situations like Seattle was in this year.  The “save” is an antiquated stat, and has no business being used to judge a pitcher’s competency at relieving.  Nevertheless, psychologically speaking, those final three outs ARE the toughest three outs in baseball.  And, if you don’t have the mental toughness required to be an everyday closer, then you’ll never hack it long term.  Because, you see, everything’s riding on that inning.  You’re The Man, and if you win, then fine, you did your job.  But, if you lose, then everyone fucking hates your guts.  If you blow a game in the 6th or 7th innings, whatever, there’s still time to come back.  If you blow a game in the 9th?  It’s ALL on you.  You’re the last thing the losing fans remember about that game.

That’s a fuck-ton of pressure!

If you’ve got all of that swimming around in your head, if you can’t push that noise out, if you can’t forget about your last appearance when you ran into trouble and it took 30+ pitches to get out of a jam, then you’ll never make it as a closer.

BUT!  You know what Diaz is thinking about in that 8th inning, with 1 out and the bases loaded?  “Gotta get a strikeout.  Gotta get a strikeout.  Gotta get a strikeout.”  It’s simple then.  Sure, it’s actually a higher-leverage situation, but there’s nothing to think about at this point.  It’s:  get this guy out any way you can without giving up a run, or else.

I think, the less Diaz has running through his mind, the better, more aggressive a pitcher he becomes.  I could be TOTALLY off-base here, but I don’t think I am.

I mean, look at how much improved Steve Cishek was when he lost his closer’s job, after he came off the DL.  He was lights out!  Why?  Because that pressure of being The 9th Inning Guy was off his shoulders.  He could just go out there and pitch, secure in the fact that there were other at bats and other innings yet to come.

Considering it’s pretty likely we’ll have both Cishek and Diaz back in 2017, what does that mean for our closer position next year?  Well, obviously, that job is Diaz’s to lose.  And, given this team’s needs, we’re probably unlikely to see the Mariners sign a high-priced free agent closer in the offseason.  But, I would be VERY pleasantly surprised if Edwin Diaz is still this team’s closer by season’s end.

No closer is perfect, so expecting him to lock down every save is unrealistic.  Usually, blown saves come in waves, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable for a good closer to blow a maximum of 1 save per month; 6 saves on the season.  Any more than that, and you have to wonder if that guy has what it takes.  I’ll be interested to see how Diaz does next year, with that goal in mind.  I’ll also be interested to see what Dipoto does to fill out that ‘pen around him.  Edwin Diaz can’t do everything, and we should probably keep the 4+ out saves to a minimum.

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