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“About as close as the Cardinals get to a ‘You only moved the headstones!’-level mistake, Aledmys Diaz hasn’t impressed since signing a four-year, $8 million contract prior to 2014. The expectation now is that he could turn into an extra infielder. Diaz passed through waivers untouched in July, so the rest of the league might find that evaluation a tad optimistic.”

That was the player comment for Aledmys Diaz in the 2016 Baseball Prospectus annual. I’m not pointing it out because I think it was, at the time, mistaken; back when everyone was just cracking open the binding of their annuals, it was quite accurate. Whatever sins the BP author might have committed, they pale in comparison to those of 29 major-league general managers.

It's been one year ago this week since the Cardinals designated Diaz for assignment, removing him from the 40-man roster and exposed him (and his multi-million-dollar contract) to the rest of the league. Since then, of course, the 24-year old Cuban shortstop has become the latest product of the renowned Cardinal Way, and his offensive prowess so undeniable that he’s caused upheaval in the Cardinals infield. One day Diaz is passing through waivers safely, the next he’s forcing a 14-year veteran to move off his position. One day he was questionable depth on a roster dealing with (in retrospect, serendipitous) injuries, the next he’s the pride of St. Louis, playing at an All-Star level. If there was ever a time that the Cardinals needed something to talk about—something other than the lack of movement on Adam Wainwright’s curveball, the ninth-inning struggles of deposed closer Trevor Rosenthal, the stalled progresses of Randal Grichuk and Kolten Wong, or the mid-30s slouch of Yadier Molina—it’s now.

Diaz’s .317/.377/.530 line through Sunday is good for fourth-best (by OPS) among shortstops; his .331 TAv is the highest at the position. He’s just behind Manny Machado for most extra-base hits among shortstops, and is just shy of making the top 10 among all hitters. He’s a contact hitter, a gap hitter, and while his over-the-fence power doesn’t come at the expense of the rest of his game, it’s also not in short supply, with 11 homers in 301 PA. Quite impressive for someone who isn’t exactly trying to do that.

Most young hitters who emerge making the type of statement Diaz is are either top prospects fulfilling their destiny, or players on a hot streak that will inevitably fall victim to the cycle of adjustments and readjustments that bring so many players back down to earth. Diaz isn’t exactly either.

His plate approach is different than we expect from hitters of his age. He’s aggressive, but without clubbing at every pitch he sees in an attempt to ambush a league unfamiliar with him. Take a look at where Diaz ranks among the 154 hitters who have seen at least 1,000 pitches this year:

Stat

Rate

Rank

Z-Swing %

68%

42nd highest

Z-Contact %

93%

12th

O-Swing %

26%

106th

Contact %

84%

28th

In other words: Diaz is more aggressive in the zone than out of the zone, and he makes far more contact in the zone than hitters of similar aggression. To be near the top of the league not just in the average offensive categories, but in areas of the game in which many young stars struggle with, suggests an approach that is built to continue producing hard contact and good at-bats. Among 47 qualifying hitters in their ages 24-26 seasons, only five have struck out less frequently than Diaz, and of those five only one (Jose Altuve) can match his power. Diaz has a good eye, a patient approach, and is feasting on the proper pitches, which has produced the steady success that now looks like a strong foundation for his future.

The largest concern with keeping Diaz on as a starting shortstop was his shoddy defense. Diaz committed nine errors in his first 31 games in St. Louis—after making five in 14 games as a shortstop in the Arizona Fall League—but over his next 39 games has only committed five. Even that, writes Mark Saxon of ESPN,

… doesn’t adequately capture the uptick in his fielding performance. Diaz said his work with Cardinals' coaches, hours before game time, has allowed him to position himself better before pitches are made and to read swings to anticipate where the ball will be headed.

“I’m happy to hear people talking about his defense, because it was such a topic of conversation early in the year. He just continues to improve,” Matheny said. “You can just tell how comfortable … He’s making plays, he’s letting it go, he’s charging balls.”

Practice makes perfect, and Diaz demonstrated that during Saturday’s contest with the Royals. With groundball pitcher Jaime Garcia on the mound for the Cardinals, Diaz fielded nine balls that became outs,

two of which were double plays.

Even just two months ago, a statement like that would have seemed unlikely.

The rags-to-riches turnaround that baseball has seen from Diaz has been quite the story this season, but it has left many wondering what had gone wrong and how he turned it around so suddenly. After defecting from Cuba in 2012, Diaz had issues concerning his date of birth and therefore was unable to sign with a team until February 2014. Diaz did not play baseball for nearly a year at an age that was essential to his big-league development, which perhaps gave a skewed perception of his true talent level during his ultimate arrival stateside. But shortly after making it through waivers last July—he was hitting .235/.292/.344 in Double-A at the time—Diaz quickly found his stride again.

It’s an important reminder that development time is not simply days passing until the player is old enough, or strong enough, to play against grownups. It’s a period of intense instruction and cultural influence that often transforms players from what they are to what they might be. Diaz has made it clear that he is eager to learn, and is happy to be contributing to the Cardinals organization in any way he can. He takes nothing for granted, and wants to succeed. Diaz has been coined “the shortstop of the future”, and done so in the knick of time. Native shortstop-now-third baseman Jhonny Peralta’s current contract with the Cardinals is set to expire after 2017, while Diaz is on a team an extremely team friendly deal and under team control through 2021.

It’s looking as though the Cardinals just accidently stumbled upon their newest superstar—though, of course, it’s no accident at all. It’s easy to mock “the Cardinal Way,” but year after year we get reminders that the Cardinals as an organization are capable of the truly remarkable.