I think we can officially call the 2009 season of Atlanta Braves outfielder Matt Diaz a "breakout season." For all NL right-fielders with at least 100 plate appearances, Matt Diaz led the league in batting average and on-base percentage. He was behind six other players in slugging percentage in the NL, but he was behind only Adam LaRoche and David Ross in slugging percentage on the Braves. Diaz had a higher slugging average than sluggers like Hunter Pence, Jay Bruce, and Ryan Ludwick.
While he only hit 13 homeruns, he did that in just 125 games at a rate of 3.1 percent. That rate is second on the Braves to only Brian McCann, and is the same rate that Diaz posted in 2007 when he put up very similar numbers to last year (which begs the question, wasn't that the "breakout season?"). His 2008 season and the dips in every category can be attributed to the knee injury he suffered and some bad luck as viewed by the big dip in his BAbip -- 60 points lower than his career average. Take away that injury-plagued year and add in a full slate of games and Diaz could be a batter who puts up a 20 homeruns and has an OPS in the neighborhood of .875.
I often think that Diaz would be a valuable pinch hitter, but he doesn't seem to be as good at a pinch hitter as he is as a starter. His career batting average as a pinch hitter is 35 points below his career batting average. That number could be attributed to some bad seasons his first few years in the league, as he did post better-than-respectable numbers for a pinch hitter from 2006 to 2008.
But Matt Diaz needs to be playing full time somewhere. After all, he is the "hittin' fool;" given that name by the way in which he swings at just about any pitch and seems to make contact. There's no way that the Braves should be thinking about taking a .300 hitter with good power out of their lineup. The problem is that he is sort of a guy without a position, and while he has good power, he doesn't have elite corner outfield power, and that seems to hurt his chances when stacked up against other players. His defense, too, is less than desirable, though not terrible.
I'd like to see the Braves give Diaz a few more at-bats next year. The Braves still need to go out and get a bigger power bat, but maybe Diaz can be that ninth-man type player who spells the left fielder, the right fielder, and the first baseman, and gets some at-bats when the matchup is favorable. Diaz could spell Jason Heyward and LaRoche (if he re-signs) against left-handers, since Diaz hits 70 points higher for his career -- and last year hit 157 points higher -- when a southpaw was on the mound. If Heyward is not deemed ready out of spring training, Diaz could keep the position warm until Heyward is ready to be called up.
It was one of the great failures of 2009 that a guy like Garret Anderson got 100 more plate appearances than Diaz, while putting up an OPS 173 points south of what Diaz put up. If only the Braves had seen that there was no need to go out and get Garret Anderson... they already had a better player on the team in Matt Diaz. Let's hope they don't repeat that mistake again this off-season. If the Braves go out and get an outfielder, they need to make him a real impact player, not the consolation prize that's signed a week into spring training.