June 7, 2023

Edwin Diaz
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

One of this winter’s top free agents crossed himself off the list over the weekend, as Edwin Díaz signed a five-year, $102 million contract to remain the Mets’ closer. Díaz was absolutely dominant this season, striking out nearly two batters an inning, resulting in a FIP under 1.00, and avoiding any of the walk or home run flurries that occasionally have marred his résumé. While I’m not particularly a fan of the save stat or the conclusions drawn as a result, him only blowing three saves in 2022 accurately reflects his dominance; he only allowed multiple runs in a single appearance all year, and all three of his blown saves occurred with one-run leads. The deal comes with a $12 million signing bonus, a team option at $20 million for a sixth season, a no-trade provision, and an opt-out after 2025.

Generally speaking, when a pitcher has a microscopic ERA, there’s some measure of luck involved; nobody’s long-term baseline expectation is an ERA of 1.31. So it naturally amuses me that Díaz arguably underperformed his peripherals this season. How often does a pitcher with an ERA that excellent actually have a FIP nearly half a run lower? Not very.

Best ERAs for FIP Underperformers (min. 40 IP)

Going back to the start of 1901, there have been only 35 player-seasons in which a pitcher had an ERA under 2.00 and had a FIP lower than their ERA (out of 796 possible player-seasons). Only Gagne and Kimbrel had lower ERAs in seasons during which they failed to match their FIP; the average FIP for a pitcher with an ERA between 1.01 and 1.51 is 2.30.

Not only did Díaz underperform his peripherals, but he was also arguably better than that. From his plate discipline and Statcast stats, ZiPS thinks that his pitching was flawless enough that he “should have” had five more strikeouts, four fewer walks, and one of his three homers axed (most likely Bryce Harper’s opposite-field shot in April that barely cleared the fence). In other words, it’s not outlandish to think that he was even better than his already amazing basic stats.

While it’s tough to get people to forget a first impression, Díaz has certainly done it. His 2018 debut with the Mets was a rather lackluster showing, as he allowed 15 homers in 58 innings, making him initially quite unpopular in Queens given Jarred Kelenic’s then-prospect status. ZiPS, though, called for a big bounceback in 2020, with a projected 2.98 ERA, not a cavernous maw away from the 2.36 ERA he was pegged for going into the season. I speak from personal experience that it’s tough to mollify fans angry at their ineffective closer by noting “home run rates are extremely volatile for relievers” and “there’s no such thing as a .377 BABIP pitcher.” I daresay that this season, few fans weren’t eagerly awaiting the next volume of Díaz’s song of ice (the reality-bending slider) and fire (the 99–100-mph fastball).

There’s little doubt that we’re now in an era beyond peak closer. The closer role still exists, but it’s slightly less rigid than before, and teams have largely moved away from the idea that there’s something magical about them beyond their ability to prevent the other guys from scoring runs. Thirty years ago, Díaz would have been an extremely strong contender for the NL Cy Young award. But it’s been 14 years since a closer finished in the top three in Cy Young voting in either league (Francisco Rodriguez); even Zack Britton’s 2016 season (47 saves and a 0.54 ERA) only was enough for him to finish fourth.

Díaz may not have Cy Young hardware, but he does get the honor, which zero players in history have treasured, of being the first player this winter to get an Official ZiPS Projection© for 2023. Other than the normal skewness of risk that any star player has, ZiPS sees no reason to be concerned about him as a pitcher.

2023 ZiPS Projection – Edwin Díaz

2023 5 1 2.28 61 0 59.3 36 15 5 19 101 171 2.3
2024 5 1 2.45 61 0 58.7 36 16 5 19 98 159 2.1
2025 4 2 2.47 60 0 58.3 38 16 5 19 94 158 1.9
2026 4 2 2.72 59 0 56.3 38 17 5 19 88 143 1.6
2027 4 2 2.98 58 0 54.3 38 18 5 20 83 130 1.3

2023 ZiPS Percentiles – Edwin Díaz

Percentile ERA+ ERA WAR
95% 504 0.77 4.6
90% 366 1.06 3.9
80% 269 1.45 3.4
70% 221 1.76 2.9
60% 193 2.01 2.6
50% 171 2.28 2.3
40% 154 2.53 2.0
30% 137 2.83 1.7
20% 112 3.48 1.1
10% 86 4.50 0.5
5% 63 6.14 -0.2

Only a single reliever in baseball has a spicier projection than Díaz: Emmanuel Clase. Suffice it to say, the Guardians weren’t going to give him to the Mets.

From the standpoint of WAR, an elite closer will tend to be overpaid relative to their bottom-line numbers. ZiPS would only give Díaz $69 million, a much less nice number than what he actually got, but I’m more likely to be named Vladimir Putin’s successor than Díaz was to get that little in free agency this year.

That doesn’t mean that you should avoid signing those relievers in all situations. I think there’s a strong case to be made that you ought to be willing to overpay for an elite talent when there are a number of conditions: you’re a contending team, the money won’t keep you from doing something else, the player is truly an elite at his position, and signing the player addresses a real team need. This signing meets all these conditions.

Even with Díaz re-signed, the Mets only rank 12th in our current reliever depth charts; replace him with a merely good reliever (let’s call that 0.5 wins), and they drop to 26th place. They are clearly contenders — they won 101 games in 2022 — and if you’re not convinced Díaz is an elite closer yet, there’s not much I can say that will change your mind. And while it’s a lot of money, Steve Cohen appears to be one of the few owners prepared to steamroll through the luxury tax thresholds this winter. I’d be a lot less positive about this deal if I thought that this signing meant that the Mets would not go after starting pitching. So far in the pay-to-play world of free agency, they appear ready to assemble the best roster they can to wipe out 2022’s disappointing final act.

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