The power of the first impression

First impressions are everything these days. If you can perform well enough (or bad enough) just long enough for people to think they have you figured out, that impression will stick like glue. The best current example of that is Aledmys Diaz.

Diaz started strong in April, leading the Majors in batting average and slugging. He somehow still failed to win either NL Player of the Month or NL Rookie of the Month. But after a month of complaints about where Diaz bats in the lineup, Mike Matheny finally made the decision to promote Diaz from his regular eighth spot in the lineup to second, arguably the most important position in the lineup.

It was always going to be a tough task for Diaz to duplicate his April performance, but a relatively pedestrian .267/.304/.419 slash line and 3 home runs in May was not the kind of performance anyone was expecting out of him.

It becomes pretty obvious once you dig into his numbers that the league is catching up to him.

Diaz’s strikeout rate has nearly tripled from 5.3% in April to 14.8 in May. His line drive rate fell from 22.4% in April to a well below average 15.6% in May (current league average is 20.7%). And while his line drive rate is up ever so slightly (15.9%) over the last two weeks, it’s certainly not enough to say that he’s figuring things out.

You can dig further and find that teams are throwing him more pitches outside the zone and he’s swinging at those far more often. He’s getting more fastballs (which makes sense for where he’s batting in the lineup now), but it’s also the pitch he’s done by far the least damage with in his brief career. So he’s getting more fastballs while opposing pitchers lay off the sliders, curveballs, and splitters he’s been destroying.

The numbers actually got even worse when you consider the 14 games since he was moved to the second spot in the lineup. In the second spot he has a slash line of just .190/.238/.259. That’s not good at all.

It remains to be seen just what kind of adjustment Diaz can make because we’ve never seen him in this situation before.

Earlier this week I tweeted out a comparison of Diaz’s April and May numbers and found it very interesting that all the responses I got were defending Diaz. He’s still learning. He’ll figure it out. He’s making adjustments. All the while, he’s still batting second in the Cardinals’ lineup.

So let me get this straight. Diaz hits .267/.304/.419 in May and .190/.238/.259 since taking over the second spot in the lineup and everyone is cool with him batting second, but Matt Holliday hits .253/.341/.507 in April and most wanted to bring Mike Matheny up on crimes against baseball for continuing to bat him third?

But if we’re going to be that hard on a veteran player batting third who has proven to be capable of adjusting and producing at a high level for many years, shouldn’t we be equally as hard (or harder) on Diaz batting second as a rookie who has proven nothing except that he had a great debut month?

The way I like to look at these kinds of situations is to consider each of Diaz’s two months in the Majors and ask yourself this question. Is he more likely to be the guy who hit .423 and had a bad month? Or is he more likely to be the guy who hit .267 and had a great month?

The obvious answer is obvious. The latter.

And that’s not to say he won’t probably settle in somewhere in between. I do see him eventually as a guy who will settle in and hit about .270 with 13-18 home runs. The odds of him being more than that are exceptionally slim. Fewer than 40 guys produced more offense than that last year and none of them played shortstop as their primary position.

The average MLB shortstop this season is currently hitting .253/.313/.389. So if Diaz ends up being that guy, he is definitely an above average offensive shortstop. And while that’s definitely worth having in your starting lineup, that’s not automatically worthy of hitting second in the lineup.

So it’s time for Matheny to move Diaz back into the second half of the lineup. If Holliday was hurting the team while batting third with what he did in April, Diaz is definitely hurting the team right now batting second with what he did in May.

And if he can’t turn it back around out of the second spot in the lineup, all that talk about Kolten Wong working on his bench warming might get a reprieve. And maybe we should be revisiting whether Jhonny Peralta should be shifting positions after all.