This player preview was written by Kyle Hugueley, who posts here as J-Freak.
At the behest of the fan base, Frank Wren followed through on his effort to sign Johnny Damon. Our newly acquired left fielder will probably be used as the leadoff man-
What's that you say? Damon's not coming? Thank goodness. Now back to our regularly scheduled Preview:
For years Matt Diaz has been stuck with the label of a fourth outfielder, and given his splits against right-handers that label has been justified. He had the highest batting average of any Brave in 2006 and 2007, however, so there's always been a glimmer of hope he might one day outgrow that label, and he might be primed to do so in 2010.
Diaz is a beast without equal against lefties. He has hit .347/.384/.537 against lefties in his career for a .921 OPS, comapred to just .722 OPS against righties. In 2008 his numbers against righties went in the tank, even before his knee injury. While posting those great numbers in '06 and '07 he didn't do much extra-base damage against righties, putting up a somewhat pedestrian OPS, but he slapped plenty of singles off of them and hit over .300 against them. in ‘09 he bounced back to post a .749 OPS against righties in almost a half-season's worth of at-bats, while still systematically destroying lefties to the tune of a .412/.464/.640/1.103 line. In ‘08, bad luck was probably the culprit more than anything, as his batting average on balls in play (BABIP) was an obscenely low .304. That mark is right about MLB average, but it pales in comparison to Diaz's .364 career BABIP.
A .364 BABIP in one season is usually an astounding amount of luck and an indicator that a hitter is due to regress badly in the coming season, but this is Diaz's career mark over 5+ seasons of work. It's no fluke, though his .383 mark from last year might be flukish even by his standards. Part of the reason for such a high mark is his work against lefties -- it's obvious he absolutely obliterates them, so of course his BABIP there will be higher than normal.
Further, he has a career line drive rate of 22.5 percent, well above the MLB average of 19 percent, and last year he posted up a staggering 24.7 percent rate. Folks, that's David Wright territory (before his power outage last year, that is). Diaz might not send as many over the fence, but he is a prolific hard-hitter. Plenty of his hits fly off the bat with homerun speed, just not the altitude, as his fondness for the double will attest. In '07 and '09 (skipping the anomalous '08) he hit 39 two-baggers in just over 700 Abs, which gives him about 33 prorated over a 600 AB season. That's roughly Chipper-in-his-prime levels of double production.
Dateline 2010 -- with no Garrett Anderson taking up space in left field anymore, and no plans by the front office to bring in another veteran, the left field job is Diaz's to lose. If he wants to take full advantage of this opportunity, Diaz needs to continue the success he showed once he was given regular playing time last year. I mentioned earlier that he had exceeded his career OPS against righties last season, but he did this while hitting 21 points under his career average against righties. If he can bring that mark up to near his career norm while maintaining the increase in OBP and SLG he put up against them last year, he could be an .800 OPS man against righties, and coupled with the numbers he puts up against lefties it's very easy to picture a scenario wherein Diaz posts an .850-.900 OPS, which is far more than you'd expect from a fourth outfielder (He delivered an .878 OPS in 09, by the way). Diaz has put up a .350+ OBP for us every year but the anomalous 2008, ending with a whopping .390 in 2009. If he maintains that skill to draw walks and makes the adjustment to bring up those numbers against righties just a bit, Diaz may become not just a strong everyday left fielder, but a dynamite leadoff option.
Realistically Diaz will probably start the year in the 8 spot in the lineup protecting Jason Heyward, but if he can make the adjustments mentioned he could force Bobby's hand and move to the top of the lineup. His competition in that spot is McLouth, who would be more valuable in a run-producing role than leading off, and given McLouth's pedestrian OBP numbers, moving Matt to the top could prove a boon for Chipper, Glaus, and McCann and might add a couple of wins to this team. Diaz must make his case, however, by finding a way to hit around .270 or better against righties again. He's done it before, and he's headed back in that direction after the lousy 2008 showing, but he needs to do it again to come into his own as a regular player. And being in that 8 spot he should have plenty of low-pressure situations to just zero in and show he can hit the way he needs to.
That really sums up the key to Diaz's success in one blow -- succeed against righties. If he does that, good things are in store for him and the team. It is even more critical that he do very well against righties in spring training, so that no thoughts of a Melky platoon are entertained. Just for fun:
Matt vs. RHP: .276/.334/.387/.722
Melky vs. RHP: .275/.333/.397/.730
They're virtually identical. Even mild improvement over his career marks really ought to be enough to garner him a full-time role and let him really show us what he can do. 2010 can be very special for Diaz if he just keeps on keepin' on, and makes any improvement whatsoever against righties.
Nice preview by Kyle, I thoroughly enjoyed it.