PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — Sometimes, you don’t need bleeding-edge tech for answers. In the case of Edwin Diaz’s 2020 revival, all anyone needed was eyes and ears.
Forget Trackman. Or Rapsodo. Even a radar gun. Just think of the human element -- and the near-total absence of that stimulus during last year’s pandemic-shortened season.
With empty ballparks, surfing the adrenaline wave of a roaring crowd was gone, the emotional spigot reduced to a trickle. Perhaps more significant — and we say this for Diaz specifically — the negative energy in the seats also had vanished, the boos relegated to living rooms under quarantine, too distant to harm the Mets’ closer.
What if the simplest explanation for Diaz’s rebound a year ago turns out to be closest to the truth? Was it enough to renovate his confidence for the 2021? Or will the expected return of fans for this season -- even in the 10-30% range -- conjure up those same Citi Field ghosts from 2019, when Diaz was booed mercilessly during his first year with the Mets?
Players at every position are subject to torment from the fans. Only a select few are ever immune. But closers have it particularly rough, primarily because their brief cameos come with the greatest pressure, an entire night’s worth of tension squeezed into a few precious minutes (hopefully) lasting just three outs.
Diaz didn’t have to contend with any of that external noise last season, a luxury that John Franco, Armando Benitez and Billy Wagner never enjoyed. So is it only a coincidence that Diaz shaved his ERA to 1.75 with a career-best 17.5 K/9 ratio over his 26 appearances? He still blew four of his 10 save chances -- bringing his job status into question yet again -- but this dominant version of Diaz more resembled one that could be trusted.
No closer dares to suggest publicly that the crowd’s reaction could impact his performance. But last year was such an extreme situation that it’s worth considering how it might have factored into Diaz’s resurgence.
"Honestly, I prefer fans in the stands," Diaz said Tuesday through an interpreter. "It just allows us to have more fun and allows us to feed off of that energy. For me personally, it doesn’t really matter if there are fans are not, because when I’m pitching, I don’t see anybody. I don’t hear anybody. I just focus on my job."
That job, for now, sounds like closer again, despite manager Luis Rojas’ preference Tuesday to be somewhat more vague -- as in, "he may be the guy that gets the most chances." But if there was a time to bail on Diaz in that role, it was this past offseason, when Brodie Van Wagenen -- the GM who brought him to Flushing - was fired and the front office was flipped over with the return of Sandy Alderson, this time as team president.
Van Wagenen was too invested in Diaz, having burned the Mets’ top prospect Jarred Kelenic in that Seattle trade while also picking up a big chunk of Robinson Cano’s bloated contract. But Alderson has no ties to Diaz, and there were plenty of other closer options on the market this winter. In fact, the Mets lost out on Brad Hand when he opted instead for the closing chance with the Nationals. Trevor Rosenthal also took that opportunity with the A’s, and as long as the Mets wouldn’t pledge that gig to a free agent, they weren’t getting one of those.
"Every offseason, I prepare myself to be the closer of the team," Diaz said. "I think last season was really important for me. I had a tremendous season last year. I’m not the one who makes the decisions, but I know my mindset in my preparation is to be the closer of this team."
On paper, it certainly shapes up that way. The Mets signed Trevor May to a two-year, $15.5-million deal in early December to bolster the back end of the bullpen, presumably in the set-up role, and still have their fingers crossed on Jeurys Familia and Dellin Betances. Among that group, Diaz is the obvious choice to return for a third season as closer, but Rojas continues to describe him currently as his best high-leverage option, should that moment arise earlier in the game.
"We can have the meat of the order coming up in the eighth inning and we feel that Sugar [Diaz] is a guy that can shut that down," Rojas said. "We can have something going on even in the seventh. It’s just different scenarios that will dictate that Sugar come in earlier than the ninth inning then maybe a guy like Trevor May pitches the ninth. Or different guys that have that experience coming in high-leverage situations. It’s just matchup-oriented."
No self-respecting closer is particularly fond of that designation, so it will be interesting to see if Rojas follows through on that strategy. As for Diaz, he controls the narrative once the ball is put in his hand, and the soundtrack.