Sports

Edwin Díaz Is Becoming a Folk Hero

It’s not just the trumpets. Though yes, those do rule.

Díaz pounds his chest and yells in celebration.
Díaz after getting the final out during the ninth inning against the New York Yankees at Citi Field on July 26, in New York City. Adam Hunger/Getty Images

Baseball offers few moments with more electricity than the entrance of a dominant closer in his home ballpark. Mariano Rivera has not pitched since 2013, but his jog from the outfield to the Yankee Stadium pitcher’s mound set against “Enter Sandman” is still spine-tingling. Trevor Hoffman has been out of the game since 2010, but his entrance to “Hell’s Bells” is still an out-of-body experience. To whatever extent baseball is a staid sport that can no longer connect with our youth, a banging closer entrance is as good an antidote as the sport can offer. The gladiator takes to the arena and does it with flair.

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Great relievers haven’t gone anywhere, but until recent days, it had become reasonable to wonder if the iconic entrance were a fading art form. There are only so many Riveras and Hoffmans, and it was a historic anomaly to have the two of them and their entrance music in concurrent heydays. Plus, times change, and pitcher usage shifts with it. Managers have come to realize that they should oftentimes deploy their best arms in moments other than conventional save situations. A closer entrance in a tie game in the eighth inning, for instance, is less cool than when a guy is about to slam the door altogether with three outs.

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Enter Edwin Díaz, the New York Mets fireballer who is leading a one-man revival of the closer entrance revolution and, as a bonus, putting together one of the great relief seasons of all time. When you hear the trumpets, a Mets fan might tell you, it is already over. They are the trumpets of “Narco,” by Blasterjaxx & Timmy Trumpet, and they herald that it is time to watch Díaz stroll to the mound in Queens:

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It is an emotional event to watch a Díaz entrance at Citi Field on one’s phone. I cannot imagine the shivers it must create in person. At root, it is a civic gathering. Mr. and Mrs. Met mime into their own trumpets as they stand on top of a dugout. Thousands of fans hold up their phone cameras and clap along, united by great brass and the knowledge that they are about to watch a world-class artist whose brushes are a wipeout slider and a 99-mile-per-hour fastball. The whole experience is enamoring, both because of what’s old and what’s new about it. In one way, Díaz harkens back to a time of cult-hero closers who became their own baseball brands on the strength of not just performance, but vibes. In another way, he is the opposite of a throwback, because there have been very few pitchers who can approximate what Díaz has been doing in 2022. He is intoxicating to watch and, in a different way, intoxicating to try to hit. There will never be another Rivera, but at least in the entrance music department, Díaz has given Flushing a great answer to the Bronx legend. In yet another feat, he even makes it hard not to feel fuzzy about the Mets.

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Nothing lasts forever, and in the life of a closer, greatness can last about 13 seconds. That Rivera and Hoffman managed such longevity (19 seasons for Rivera, 18 for Hoffman) is why they were so special. But in a vacuum, Díaz in the first four months of the 2022 season has arguably been the most dominant pitcher in Major League Baseball’s history. Raw earned-run average doesn’t quite capture it, as Díaz’s 1.39 figure is of course excellent but does not even lead the league this year. (That would be the St. Louis Cardinals’ Ryan Helsey at 0.79) Where Díaz stands apart from everyone else is in how purely unhittable he is on an at-bat to at-bat basis. He is striking hitters out at a rate of 18.1 per nine innings. If Díaz stayed there all season, it’d be the highest single-season figure in the recorded history of the majors, according to Stathead (minimum 40 innings). His fielding independent pitching number, an ERA analog that strips out everything but the strikeouts, walks, and home runs a pitcher directly controls, is 0.82. That would be the second-best in MLB history, a shade behind Craig Kimbrel’s 2012 with the Atlanta Braves. Díaz issues precious few walks (2.4 per nine innings), and only the sporadic home run—he’s allowed three—allows hitters even a shred of hope.

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For the most part, those hitters look ridiculous when they step into the box. They swing at 43 percent of his pitches outside the strike zone and whiff on 73 percent of those flails. All told, they whiff on 45 percent of their swings against Díaz, easily the highest rate in the majors. It is hard to blame them. Díaz has a two-pitch repertoire, but his fastball and slider are almost indistinguishable from each other for the first few feet out of his hand. Then one starts to move in a banana, and the other just rockets into the catcher’s glove.

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Big league hitters can hit anything if they know it’s coming, but Díaz keeps them so badly off balance that he makes them look like Little Leaguers time and again.

Even the hitters who can get the bat on a Díaz pitch are fighting an uphill battle to do anything with it and will find themselves hoping for a bleeder to find a hole. Díaz has allowed exactly one (1) hitter to square the ball up on the barrel of the bat this year, according to MLB’s Statcast data. (That was a Juan Soto home run in May. Two others got out of the park despite not being “barreled.”) The average contact against Díaz leaves the bat at 83.8 miles per hour, one of the slowest speeds in the league. It is a small wonder that batters have managed 27 hits against him. All of four have been for extra bases.

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Díaz is, simply put, a cheat code. The pitcher factory does not produce arms of his vintage. Where Díaz is something of an old-school closer is in how he is almost always used: late, when the Mets are winning, and for exactly three outs. He has made 45 appearances and totaled 45-and-a-third innings. He has entered six times in the eighth, but never before. He rarely comes on when the Mets aren’t leading. He’s had 29 save attempts and has succeeded on 26 of them. His last blown save was on May 24.

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I am a staunch advocate of managers using their best pitchers in the highest-leverage situations, whether with a lead in the ninth or not. For the Mets, those have generally been one in the same. (Díaz also leads the team in leverage index, a measure of how fraught a situation that a pitcher takes over.) But even if the Mets were leaving Díaz in the bullpen during more useful spots in the seventh or eighth, I would not care. I don’t want to see him until the Mets are ahead late. In fact, I want exactly three outs to separate them from victory, and I want Díaz to be charged with getting them. There is a time and place for a reliever and an entrance this great. Fortunately, to know when it has arrived, you need only listen for the trumpets.

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