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The Mets Won the Edwin Diaz Trade. Eventually.


That first 12 months, every save probability for Edwin Díaz was like a box of flowers delivered to the Mets’ front door. The Mets would undo the ribbon and lean in for the sweet smell, and the box would blow up of their face.

This happened time and again, like an inexpensive gag on repeat. Everyone knew the box would explode, it seemed, except the fools within the front office.

“The deal, I knew, was going to be loud,” Brodie Van Wagenen, the previous Mets general manager, said by phone recently — but he didn’t know that the noise can be home run balls torpedoing the 2019 season.

Now, in fact, the soundtrack for Díaz is “Narco,” the bouncy, brassy anthem by Blasterjaxx and Timmy Trumpet that heralds his appearances at Citi Field. Díaz is the majors’ most dominant reliever again, just as he was when Van Wagenen acquired him in a polarizing trade with Seattle in December 2018. He has struck out greater than half of his opposing hitters this season, and allowed just two runs within the last three months.

“My confidence is at the highest right away,” Díaz said Monday. “I do know once I are available from the bullpen, the opposite team’s in trouble.”

Through Thursday, Díaz, a right-hander, has faced 194 batters this season and fanned 98. His strikeout rate, 17.5 per nine innings, is the second best in major league history for seasons of not less than 40 innings pitched. He has 28 saves in 31 tries with a 1.43 E.R.A., with a fastball-slider mix that few hitters can solve.

“He throws 100, so you’ll be able to’t just sit in between,” said the Mets’ Darin Ruf, who struck out the primary time he faced Díaz, while playing for San Francisco in April. “You may have to gear up for a fastball — and if the slider looks like a fastball however it’s eight miles an hour slower and it breaks loads more? Good luck.”

That is the Díaz the Mets thought they were getting when Van Wagenen made his first trade as a general manager. Van Wagenen had worked as an agent before joining the Mets, pledging to revive the team after two losing seasons. He made Díaz a top goal, sending five players — including two former first-round draft picks, outfielder Jarred Kelenic and pitcher Justin Dunn — to the Mariners for Díaz and the veteran second baseman Robinson Canó.

“I believe all of us, within the industry, must have perspective that trades aren’t measured in a day,” said Van Wagenen, who was fired in November 2020 and is now the chief operating officer for Roc Nation Sports. “Prospects are precious, but at the identical point, the mode by which we were at as a company, heading into the 2019 season, and the best way by which the expectations are for that franchise in the town — there’s an expectation to win.

“Our evaluation was that almost all of those prospects we moved — whatever the quality of the players — wouldn’t be making an incredible impact within the 2019, ’20 or ’21 seasons. So our thought process was that we should always give you the option to compete in the subsequent three to 4 years, with the players we were getting in return.”

The Mets did have a winning record in 2019, at 86-76, but they never seriously contended. Kelenic and Dunn thrived in Seattle’s minor league system, earning spots on the All-Star Futures Game, while Canó was atypical and Díaz flopped. Díaz knew that almost all fans, back then, wanted a do-over on the deal.

“I understand every part,” Díaz said. “If the people say something bad about me, they need me to perform higher. I don’t take it personally; that’s a part of the sport. But at the identical time, I would like to be one of the best guy on the mound each time, because I do know I’ve got the stuff.”

Díaz had a 5.59 E.R.A. in 2019, with an odd bundle of other statistics: No pitcher before him had ever earned not less than 25 saves, while also absorbing seven losses and allowing 15 home runs. And none have done so since.

It was a nasty 12 months, to make sure, but mainly it was weird. Díaz threw harder than he had in 2018, when he saved a league-leading 57 games for Seattle, and he could still be overpowering, with 99 strikeouts in 58 innings. Home runs ruined his season.

“The house run could make things seem loads worse than they really are,” said Jeremy Hefner, the Mets’ pitching coach. “Home runs aren’t predictive 12 months over 12 months. There was nothing that suggested that what he did in ’19 was going to proceed. What he did within the previous three or 4 years was closer to his true, normal self.”

Other teams sensed that, too; Van Wagenen said rivals pursued Díaz in trade talks in 2019, at the same time as he struggled. The Mets “could have loaded back with prospects, of course,” Van Wagenen said, but Díaz — who was under team control through 2022 — was a part of a longer-term plan.

The Mets overhauled their pitching program during and after the 2019 season, firing the pitching coach Dave Eiland that June and Manager Mickey Callaway — a former pitching coach — in October. Hefner, a former Mets pitcher who was then just 33 years old, took over because the pitching coach after the 2019 season and shortly went to Díaz’s native Puerto Rico to go to him.

Díaz knew what had gone incorrect in 2019: not a lack of control (he could still throw strikes) but a lack of command — that’s, the flexibility to position his pitches with precision, in or out of the zone. He would miss down the center with each his slider and fastball, and hitters would pounce.

Hefner used an analogy straight out of a county fair: Díaz’s delivery was too very like a merry-go-round, and needed to be more like a Ferris wheel. It was only a technique to visualize old-time baseballese, to assist Díaz preserve his low arm slot while having a greater probability to attack a selected spot — down and in to left-handers, low and away to righties.

“He’s real rotational, and rotation is power, in order that’s why he’s capable of throw as hard as he can,” Hefner said. “But should you get too rotational, that’s if you get the arm-side misses, and you’ll be able to’t get the slider to the glove side. So we talked loads about being a little bit bit more top-to-bottom and getting on top of the ball — all of the things we’ve been talking about in baseball for 100 years — and that helped him.”

This is basically Díaz’s third strong season in a row; because the start of 2020, he has held opponents to a .185 average, with only eight home runs. A fellow Mets reliever, the right-hander Seth Lugo, said Díaz has preserved his mechanics through meticulous work: In the center innings, he practices his delivery on a bullpen mound without throwing the ball, and plays catch with the identical purpose.

Lugo compared Díaz to starter Jacob deGrom in his variety of pitching. Their sliders don’t sweep from right to left — consider the Mets’ Adam Ottavino today, or the previous Yankee setup man Jeff Nelson — but they throw so hard that the pitch holds the plane of a fastball until the very end of its journey.

“Those are the 2 best pitches in the sport: a 100 mile-an-hour fastball and a 90-plus mile-an-hour slider that appears like a fastball,” Lugo said. “It’s not like they’re tricking anybody. They’re going to throw a heater and throw a slider off it. But to acknowledge that slider, you’ll be able to’t do it.”

Díaz, 28, grew up idolizing Pedro Martinez and Mariano Rivera. He could never quite master Martinez’s changeup, and while his slider has the sharp, late movement of Rivera’s cutter, it drops down as an alternative of veering left. The Mariners recognized Díaz’s command of two pitches — not three, as most starters need — and converted him from a starter to a reliever in 2016.

Díaz adapted so quickly that he skipped Class AAA on his technique to the majors. He threw harder in relief, he said, and when he learned a recent slider grip from the coach Mel Stottlemyre Jr. and his teammate Joaquin Benoit — throwing across the seams together with his index and middle fingers, his thumb hugging a seam underneath — he became a star.

The opposite standouts of the trade have faded: Canó, 39, missed the 2021 season after his second positive test for performance-enhancing drugs, and was released this season by the Mets, Atlanta and San Diego. Kelenic has hit .167 in 500 major league plate appearances and is currently at Class AAA, and Dunn has a 5.12 E.R.A. in 4 starts for Cincinnati.

It took some time — and lots of dollars wasted on Canó — however the logic behind the trade has prevailed. Van Wagenen still sees Díaz when he visits Citi Field, offering friendly encouragement, and said he admires the best way Díaz persevered through their shared frustration of 2019.

If he feels vindicated now for the trade that defined his tenure in Flushing, Van Wagenen just isn’t saying. But he sure is having fun with the show.

“I’m still a fan of the organization and I’m going to games, and I’m excited to see them doing well,” Van Wagenen said. “And clearly, with Edwin, he’s such an enormous a part of it. I’m very comfortable for him.”

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