Yainer Diaz joined elite company. Can he finally crack Astros’ everyday lineup?

HOUSTON — Yainer Diaz’s dominance does not deliver any assurances. He is one of the Houston Astros’ most potent hitters and, Saturday night, positioned himself alongside the best rookies this franchise has ever produced. Only six others have ever hit 20 home runs in their first full season.

In the fourth inning of a frustrating loss, Diaz became the seventh. New York Yankees starter Luis Severino hung a slider on the outer half of Diaz’s strike zone. The 24-year-old slugger sent it 374 feet into the opposite field. When the baseball landed in the right field seats, a celebration commenced somewhere in the Dominican Republic.

“That was the goal that my parents set for me in the beginning of the year,” Diaz said through an interpreter after Houston’s 5-4 loss. “They said they wanted to see me hit 20 homers. I can only imagine they’re just jumping in happiness.”

In an otherwise glum clubhouse, Diaz could not hide a wide smile. He clutched his cellphone and checked it periodically between questions about his milestone. A family group chat kept distracting him.

“My mom is very happy,” Diaz reported.

Astros rookies with 20 home runs

Name HR Year Plate Appearances

Yordan Alvarez




Carlos Correa




Jeremy Peña




Lance Berkman




George Springer




Glenn Davis




Yainer Diaz




The six other Astros rookies to hit 20 home runs have combined for 16 All-Star appearances, two World Series MVP awards and, just in the last three winters, $465 million in long-term contract money. Two of them won American League Rookie of the Year honors for their performances.

Diaz doesn’t have a chance to join them, a byproduct of sporadic playing time that won’t increase any time soon. His spot in the Astros lineup is still not guaranteed, a dilemma none of the other six rookies ever faced.

Carlos Correa, Jeremy Peña and Lance Berkman all took at least 415 plate appearances during their 20-homer seasons. Yordan Alvarez needed just 369 to hit a franchise rookie record 27 home runs in 2019, but the Astros didn’t call him up until early June.

Diaz has been active since opening day but has taken just 331 plate appearances. That manager Dusty Baker only gave him 75 across the season’s first three months — on a three-catcher roster constructed specifically to get him more at-bats — becomes more indefensible with each extra-base hit he delivers. His home run Saturday gave him 38 for the season. Only Alex Bregman, Kyle Tucker and Alvarez have more.

Realistically, Baker could not have envisioned such immediate success. Diaz’s tendency to swing freely and chase outside the strike zone invited worry about how he’d adjust to major-league pitching. He boasted a 49.3 percent chase rate and 61.6 percent swing rate in June.

“Earlier in the season, I worried about chasing those pitches out of the zone and understood that a lot of teams were going to attack me like that, but it’s just something that (I’ve) been working on, just trying to stay very focused and swing at good pitches,” Diaz said.

Yainer Diaz hits a two-run home run in the fourth inning against the New York Yankees on Saturday at Minute Maid Park. (Bob Levey / Getty Images)

Diaz has started 39 of Houston’s 54 games since July 1, and signs of growth are evident across those 177 plate appearances. His swing percentage dropped to 58.6 percent in July and 55 percent in August. He chased pitches outside the strike zone 43.1 percent of the time in July and 37 percent in August.

All of those numbers are still wildly above the major-league average, but for someone with such pronounced numbers, any progress should be celebrated.

“I think I’ve been studying a little bit more of how guys have been trying to attack me and trying to get me out,” Diaz said. “I’m trying to look for certain pitches in certain spots to see how they’re attacking me. Also, just trying to follow the track of the ball and stay a little bit more behind.”

For Diaz to continue his progression, and for the Astros to field their most lethal lineup, more playing time is mandatory. To maximize Diaz’s value, Houston should ensure he’s playing some defensive position. Diaz is slashing .219/.243/.352 in 136 plate appearances as a designated hitter. He’s just 1-for-13 in pinch-hit opportunities this season, too.

Diaz has appeared in 62 of the team’s past 71 games and started 52 of them. Twenty of those starts have been at catcher, where veteran Martín Maldonado otherwise has a stranglehold on the starting job.

Houston will not abandon Maldonado, especially not when Justin Verlander or Framber Valdez pitches. Barring injury or a total implosion, those two aces will start the team’s most meaningful games and open any potential playoff series. Maldonado will catch them, meaning Diaz must reverse his season-long struggles as either a DH or bench bat if he hopes to have success in the meaningful games he will play.

Baker is hellbent on playing his best defensive alignment behind Verlander and Valdez. Often, that lineup does not include Diaz. Michael Brantley’s return — and immediate success — has only complicated matters further. Brantley is the team’s best defensive option in left field, which means Alvarez must serve as the designated hitter.

Diaz’s most direct path to starting meaningful games is at first base, where José Abreu is authoring a mini-resurgence after spending 12 days on the injured list with a lower back problem. Only five qualified hitters have a lower OPS than Abreu’s .648 mark, but the struggling veteran is 7-for-27 with three extra-base hits since his return from the injured list. As a result, Baker does not sound like someone prepared to make first base a timeshare.

“You’ve seen the results. I think the time off to get his body back together helped him, but the two days on, two days off, we’re kind of maybe toward the end of that because he’s back in shape and, plus, we got every Thursday off,” Baker said before the game. “We need him. We need him badly.”

If Baker’s managerial tenure has demonstrated anything, it is his loyalty to veteran players. Yuli Gurriel received the same treatment last season despite his offensive spiral, but in fairness, there was no player like Diaz authoring a compelling case to usurp him.

That Baker hasn’t already taken at-bats away from Abreu suggests it’s not likely to happen any time soon. For Diaz, it means more uncertainty in a season that does not deserve it.

“The biggest key is just being positive, just the mentality of being positive whenever I come in,” Diaz said. “I don’t know if I’m going to be used or not, but just staying positive, staying ready and staying prepared is the biggest key.”

(Top photo: Kevin M. Cox / Associated Press)

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