PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — There were no trumpets to greet him, no phones held out to record his entrance, no fanfare at all. But after throwing a bullpen session on the back mounds at Clover Park on Monday, Edwin Díaz could smile.
“Finally back,” he said. “I’m ready to go.”
The Mets hope this season feels a lot more like 2022 than 2023, and few things can reify that desire quite like seeing Díaz late in games again. Losing their closer during the World Baseball Classic was the first buffet in a season of blows for the Mets. It resonated throughout the year, shifting roles for the entirety of New York’s bullpen and affecting the pitching staff as a whole.
Now, just about 11 months removed from surgery to repair a torn patellar tendon in his right knee, Díaz feels as ready as ever for spring training.
“It was my normal offseason, I did my normal routine,” Díaz said. “I won’t be afraid to jump, to run, to whatever. I feel great.”
Díaz said he felt prepared to return late last regular season if the Mets had been in contention for a playoff spot. Now, he’s happy he didn’t have to push himself so hard then, granting himself an extra six months to prepare for this season.
Hey from Port St. Lucie, by the way. Here’s Edwin Díaz (among others) throwing in the bullpen. pic.twitter.com/WN5U2W6cSB
— Tim Britton (@TimBritton) February 12, 2024
There are still a couple of hurdles for him to surpass this spring. He hasn’t started fielding bunts or covering the bases from the mound. That should happen soon.
Don’t expect Díaz to appear in a Grapefruit League game right away, though that has nothing to do with his recovery. Díaz said Monday that he prefers to do his work on the back fields during spring to get a more comprehensive chance to work on his pitches.
“Here in the game, if you get 10 pitches, you didn’t work a lot. I prefer going in the backfield, throwing 25 or 30 pitches,” he said. “I want to control my slider the way I want, I want to command my fastball the way I want.”
(Díaz has typically made his first spring appearance in the Mets’ fifth game of the Grapefruit League schedule. In 2019, he waited until the club’s eighth game.)
How much of a loss was Díaz? There are a few different ways to try to quantify that loss. First, how much worse were the Mets when leading after eight innings?
Not very. While the 2022 Mets were an insane 89-0 when leading after eight, the 2023 squad was 64-2. And for the 2023 season, the Mets allowed only five more runs in the ninth inning than they had the year before — the equivalent of one extra run every 32 games. Performance after the eighth inning was not what caused the Mets to lose 26 more games than the year before.
By record, the Mets weren’t that much worse when leading after six innings either. In 2022, they were 87-5. Last year, they were 59-7.
However, the cascade effect of Díaz’s absence can be seen in those seventh and eighth innings: New York allowed 23 more runs in the seventh inning in 2023 than in 2022 and 20 more runs in the eighth inning.
The difference looks even starker when we examine opponent OPS late in games. Here’s how opposing teams performed against the Mets in games that were tied or where the Mets led by no more than three.
Opponent OPS v. Mets
7th to 9th
“I think we would have been better last year if I were pitching,” Díaz said. “If I was there, I would have been able to help them win more games. I hope this year I will be there with them and make the playoffs. That’s our goal.”
Having Díaz back in the ninth played into how president of baseball operations David Stearns built his bullpen this past winter.
“It makes everything so much easier,” Stearns said of having that elite closer. “It makes building the rest of your pen and allowing those guys to feel comfortable in their roles a heck of a lot easier. If Edwin continues on his progression and he’s able to anchor the backend of the pen, that certainly makes the rest of the puzzle fit a little bit more neatly.”
For now, Díaz can only imagine what the scene will be like that first time back at Citi Field, when the lights go out and “Narco” hits the stadium speakers.
“It will be crazy. The fans are waiting for that, that moment with the trumpets,” he said. “When I come out to pitch, I can’t wait to see that moment and feel it.”
(Photo of Edwin Díaz from 2022: Frank Franklin II/Associated Press)