When Alexis Díaz entered spring training, he was considered a longshot to make the big-league roster out of camp.
He had a stellar 2021 season in Double-A, but he was a relative unknown. He didn’t show up at the top of the Cincinnati Reds’ prospect rankings. If anything, he was most known as Edwin Díaz’s younger brother.
In six months, Díaz went from the last pitcher to make the Opening Day roster to a guy projected to be the closer of the future. All he did was become the most reliable reliever in the bullpen, leading the Reds in wins (seven) and saves (10). It’s the first time a pitcher led a team in both categories, excluding the 60-game 2020 season, since Houston’s Doug Jones in 1992 (11 wins, 36 saves), according to Bally Sports statistician Joel Luckhaupt.
“I think it’s exciting that he’s just at the very beginning of being able to get better,” Reds Manager David Bell said.
Díaz entered the final game of the season Wednesday with a 1.84 ERA across 59 relief appearances with 83 strikeouts and 33 walks in 63 2/3 innings.
The 26-year-old right-hander started the season in a middle relief role and kept earning more trust from the coaching staff. By May, he was the club’s setup man. After missing a couple of weeks with a bicep tendinitis in June, he spent the second half of the season as the Reds’ closer. His 10 saves are the most by a Reds rookie since Scott Williamson totaled 19 saves during his 1999 rookie of the year campaign.
“It was a year that was kind of unexpected,” Díaz said through team interpreter Jorge Merlos. “I’m so glad I was able to have an unbelievable season this year. I grinded through a lot of things this year.”
It can be hard to trust relievers year to year, but Díaz does a lot of things that inspire confidence he can turn into one of the league’s top closers. He features two dominant pitches with his fastball and slider. He survived with a high walk rate this year, holding opposing hitters to a .131 batting average. Right-handed batters produced a miniscule .382 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) against him, almost cutting in half the .706 league average.
“I’m much more surprised with how my fastball has been this year,” Díaz said. “I’ve been a pitcher that has been using 50-50 fastball and slider, but before this year, I haven’t had that much control with my fastball.”
Díaz does a lot of extraordinary things that can’t be taught. He has the highest spin rate on his fastball in baseball. He rates in the 100th percentile in the league for extension, meaning he’s closer to the plate when he’s delivering pitches and hitters have less time to react.
He trains with his brother in the offseason, and it doesn’t hurt he can compare notes with arguably the best reliever in the league.
“I just want to work on getting stronger,” Díaz said. “Get better, bigger and at least build up myself for next year because it’s going to be a longer year next year I feel like. But I still think I’m going to be better regardless next year.”
Díaz may have progressed quicker than expected to the major league level, but the rookie isn’t surprised by his success. He knows the work he does in the offseason. He trusts what his offseason coaches emphasize.
“I think it’s important that he’s shown to himself that he can do it here,” Bell said. “He’s certainly showed everybody else what he’s capable of. For Alexis to focus now on finding ways to take that to the next level, physically, I think he’s excited by what he can do this offseason to get in the best shape of his life, continue to get stronger and be able to handle whatever is thrown at him next season.”
There was a lot of growth for Díaz during his rookie season. He earned his first career save in a 10-inning win over Cleveland, striking out José Ramírez with the bases loaded. He earned a save against the New York Yankees in July when he struck out Aaron Judge in a one-run game.
His favorite moment?
“I think just the fact I got called up,” Díaz said. “I’m living the dream. Everyone wants to be a Major League Baseball player. I think it’s the best moment I can relate to, but I know the job is not done here. I have to keep going, keep moving forward and keep grinding out as much as I can to stay up here.”
The Reds believe their bullpen has the makings for a solid group in 2023. Díaz hasn’t been anointed the long-term closer yet, but Tejay Antone, Lucas Sims and Tony Santillan will be back from injuries and could form a solid late-inning group if they remain healthy.
The bullpen showed improvement in the second half of the season when roles solidified. Díaz is willing to pitch whenever he’s asked, but all relievers set goals to become the closer.
“I’d love to be the closer next year. Those moments are so important to the game and so important to the team as well. I feel really comfortable coming into those situations. I would really like to be closer next year.”
This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: Cincinnati Reds closer Alexis Diaz surprised himself in rookie year