St. Louis Cardinals: Early Returns on Aledmys Diaz Hitting Sixth

May 5, 2017; Atlanta, GA, USA; St. Louis Cardinals shortstop Aledmys Diaz (36) hits an RBI single in the sixth inning of their game against the Atlanta Braves at SunTrust Park. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports
May 5, 2017; Atlanta, GA, USA; St. Louis Cardinals shortstop Aledmys Diaz (36) hits an RBI single in the sixth inning of their game against the Atlanta Braves at SunTrust Park. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports /

St. Louis Cardinals second-year shortstop Aledmys Diaz recently descended from his usual second spot in the lineup to the six hole.

After an 0-for-4 performance at the plate on Tuesday, May 2 against the Milwaukee Brewers, St. Louis Cardinals shortstop Aledmys Diaz‘s batting average sat at .218. His on-base percentage wasn’t much better, at .233.

That’s when manager Mike Matheny decided to make a switch. He didn’t send Diaz to the bench, but instead moved him down four spots in the batting order the next game. The shortstop was a staple in the two hole for the Cardinals much of last season and throughout the first month of this season.

In his first game hitting sixth in the lineup, Diaz went 3-for-5 Thursday night against the Brewers. He stroked his fifth double of the year and beat out two infield hits for singles. That performance alone raised Diaz’s batting average eighteen points, to .236.

Matheny stuck with Diaz in the sixth spot for the series opener against the Atlanta Braves Friday night, and the shortstop delivered with one of his best games at the plate this season. He went 4-for-4, drove in three runs, hit his sixth double of the year, and drew a walk. His batting average jumped another twenty-eight points, up to .264. He now leads the team in hits with 29.

Since being moved down in the order, Diaz is 7-for-9 at the plate. His batting average, just days ago at .218, is now .264 entering play Saturday, May 6. His four-hit performance Friday night was the second time in his young career he’s tallied at least four hits in one game. The first was last year on April 23, when he went 5-for-5 against the San Diego Padres.

Has the lineup change benefited Diaz? Here’s what he had to say after Friday night’s win in Atlanta:

"“The last couple games, I just feel like my rhythm is back. The first month I didn’t have my timing. When you get your timing back you see the pitches better, you start swinging at pitches in the strike zone. I feel like I’m in the right spot when I want to swing.”"

Diaz wasn’t producing much in the way of getting on base at the top of the order. Given what he had to say, it sounds like his early-season struggles weren’t a result of him putting too much pressure on himself in the two hole. Rather, he was struggling to adjust to pitchers that now have a year’s worth of video to examine Diaz’s approach at the plate.

Related Story: Mike Matheny Shuffles the Cards' Lineup

Having Diaz hit in the middle of the lineup may end up helping the team more than anything, especially if he continues to drive the ball and string together multiple hits per game. As the season began, Diaz was the ideal two-hitter for St. Louis not only because of his hitting ability, but his patience at the plate also appealed at the top of the lineup.

However, Diaz has drawn just three walks this year. He’s swinging at more pitches earlier in the counts and expanding his zone. He’s not striking out all that often (only 11 times through Friday, May 5). So when he swings at pitches outside of the strike zone, he’s not missing every time, but rather making weak contact.

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Last season, he swung at 26.3% of pitches that were outside of the strike zone. This year, that number has spiked to 39.0%, per PITCHf/x. Overall, he’s swung at 54.3% of pitches, compared to 45.2% in 2016.

Perhaps as Diaz feels more comfortable at the plate he’ll display more patience and begin to draw walks at the rate he did last season. If that is the case, it could mean he’s destined for the second spot in the lineup again as the year goes along. But for now, there’s no reason for Matheny to tinker with Diaz’s small sample size of success. Expect to see the shortstop hitting in the middle of the order for at least the next few games.

Getting Aledmys Diaz going is an integral part of the Cardinals’ offensive attack. Matheny has toyed with the 4-5-6 spots in the order through the first month of the season, so it’d be nice to see Diaz solidify himself in the middle of the order.

The skipper will have to find a solution for the two hole with Diaz hitting lower. Before he left Thursday’s game with a hamstring strain, right fielder Stephen Piscotty was batting second for the Cardinals.

If Dexter Fowler returns soon in the leadoff position, second baseman Kolten Wong, off to a great start offensively, may be a candidate for hitting higher in the lineup until Piscotty is activated from the disabled list.

Editor’s Note: Diaz is batting fifth tonight and has gone 2-for-2 in his at-bats. It is always good to watch Aledmys be the Aledmys we know!

Next: A Look At the May Schedule

Diaz was one of the best hitters in the St. Louis Cardinals’ lineup last year in his rookie season. He under performed through the first month of his sophomore season, but his ability to make the next step will be determined by his capacity to respond to a slow start, adjust, and get back on track.