With Francisco Cervelli on the seven-day disabled list, the Pittsburgh Pirates now turn to 26-year-old Elias Diaz as their starting catcher. Diaz, who has been with the Pirates since 2009, is finally getting his chance to start for the Pirates and could be an improvement over Cervelli.

Injuries open the door for others to step up.

Josh Harrison finally became a regular with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2014 when Neil Walker had an appendectomy. He used that opportunity to become an All-Star and an MVP-finalist.

Mark Melancon got his first crack at being the Pirates closer when Jason Grilli strained his right flexor tendon. Melancon became the Pirates full-time closer once Grilli was traded in 2014 and Melancon stayed in that role until he too was traded in 2016.

Now, Elias Diaz has a similar opportunity.

Francisco Cervelli was placed on the seven-day concussion disabled list on Wednesday. Cervelli should be back next week, but for now the starting catcher job belongs to Elias Diaz.

Diaz hit the ground running in his first game as the short-term starting catcher on Wednesday against the Orioles. He went 2-5 with a RBI double and a pickoff. Remarkably, it was only his sixth career major-league start.

Long time coming

While no teammate would publicly rejoice over another’s injury, Diaz must have been overjoyed that he finally got a chance to become the Pirates regular catcher. He has spent the majority of the last nine seasons in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ minor league system.

Diaz made his MLB debut in 2015, but only played two games. Last season, Diaz only played one game in the majors thanks to nagging injuries. Diaz didn’t make his 2016 debut until July 4 because of right elbow surgery during Spring Training.

Diaz missed his chance to be a starter in 2016 when Cervelli was injured in mid-June. Instead of Diaz, it was Chris Stewart, Erik Kratz, Eric Fryer and Jacob Stallings filling the hole, though most of them either got hurt at one point or another as well.

By the time Cervelli returned to the Pirates in July, Diaz was back playing and came up briefly, but not long enough because the Pirates wanted him to be playing full-time at some professional level. Pittsburgh was not that level.

Even worse for Diaz, his season ended in mid-September because of a leg infection. When rosters expanded to 40 men and other Triple-A players got called up, Diaz was unable to join them.

Not just a short-term starter

Even when Cervelli comes back, Diaz should continue to get opportunities as a starter. Cervelli has proven to be injury-prone over the last two seasons. The aforementioned left-hand injury last season in addition to right foot problems and a concussion this season suggest that Cervelli should not be run out behind the plate as regularly as before.

Pittsburgh Pirates C Francisco Cervelli
Francisco Cervelli’s production has decreased in the last two seasons.

In 2015, Cervelli stayed healthy for the bulk of the season, playing in 130 games, a career-high. In the process, Cervelli had a career season at the plate and behind it. He hit .295 with seven home runs, both bests among seasons with at least 200 at bats.

Defensively Cervelli led all MLB catchers with at least 1,000 pitches caught with 26.7 Runs Above Average (RAA) and 10.7-percent of pitches outside the strike zone called strikes (oStr%) per Stat Corner Catcher Report. Additionally, Cervelli caught 22-percent of runners stealing, his best among seasons with at least 300 innings played.

All of the aforementioned statistics dropped for Cervelli in 2016 and are down in 2017 too. It’s fair to debate whether Cervelli just had a career-year in 2015 and turned it into a major contract. One thing is certain though: injuries have hampered Cervelli over the last two seasons and at 31, he’s unlikely to put up numbers like 2015 again at this current rate of overuse as a starter.    

A proposed solution

The best way to keep Cervelli fresh and at his best is to play Diaz more. Split up the starting duties during the week. One plays four days, the other three.

Cervelli’s pitch-framing skills are important and would still be used. There’s limited information on minor league pitch framing, so Diaz’s exact stats are unknown, but he clearly has a better arm than Cervelli. This season in Triple-A Indianapolis, Diaz has gunned down a ridiculous 48-percent of runners attempting to steal a base.

It’s not just this season though. Diaz has always had a habit of catching runners stealing. His career caught stealing percentage is 30-percent and combined to catch 52-percent of runners stealing at three different levels last season. As a Pirate, Cervelli has never caught more than 22-percent of baserunners stealing, which he did in 2015.

Additionally, Diaz has a solid bat. He’s hit .265 in four seasons in Triple-A and is a career .260 hitter in the minors. In 31 MLB at-bats, Diaz has eight hits, good for a .258 average. He won’t wow with his bat, but a catcher’s defense is more important than his bat. That said, Diaz’s bat isn’t strong enough to suggest that he’s a better starting option than Cervelli, who has a career .277 average in the major leagues. Cervelli hits better, but Diaz defends better.

Time will tell

Diaz will get a shot to prove himself for the next week. He won’t win the starting job even when Cervelli returns, but he can make a case to earn playing time. As mentioned before, Diaz’s forte is his defense, but to continue playing he has to hit strong enough to warrant more playing time.

Diaz has hit well over his last three starts, probably knowing he has to hit to stay up in the majors. He’s 6-13 (.461) at the plate with a home run. Most impressively, Diaz has only struck out once in those three games. In the process, Diaz brought his overall batting average up to .320, his batting average on balls in play up to .350 and his slugging percentage up to .560.

The best way to keep Cervelli fresh and at his best is to play Diaz more. Split up the starting duties during the week. One plays four days, the other three.  

The only problem is, once Cervelli is back and Chris Stewart returns from the 10-day disabled list, Diaz will likely lose his chance. He has minor league options available and Stewart is under control until the end of this season with a team option in his contract for 2018. Manager Clint Hurdle rarely keeps three catchers on his 25-man roster.

There’s an opportunity for Diaz to stay in the majors and the statistics suggest he deserves a shot, but it’s unlikely that he will once the Pirates catching corps are healthy again. MLB.com has Diaz as the Pirates top catching prospect and its ninth-best prospect in the organization at any position.

However, it also projected Diaz as a backup catcher in the majors. By no means should Diaz be the full-time starter unless Cervelli is out long-term or traded/suspended. That said, the case has been made that Cervelli shouldn’t be the full-time catcher either due to injuries and diminished performance. It’s worth a shot.

Photo Credit: MLB.com

Joel Norman

Joel Norman is a journalism major at West Virginia University. In addition to writing for Pirates Breakdown, Joel covers WVU sports for the Daily Athenaeum and writes game recaps and features for the Pittsburgh Riverhounds. Joel also does play-by-play broadcasts of WVU hockey and baseball for WWVU-FM in Morgantown.

  • leadoff

    Diaz is the best catcher the Pirates have right now, they are committed to Cervelli and they don’t like to make changes when they are committed, Hurdle especially does not like to move away from his vets. Cervelli looks in decline to me, he is so slow and the injuries are piling up.

  • redrage97

    Over all defensively Elias is just as good as Cervelli at league minimum. Cervelli probably gets a slight edge batting, but MLB data for elias is thin, 45 Plate appearances isnt enough to go on.. but boy is he hot right now and he has more drive than Cervelli with a little less quickness.

    Like the story said, pitch framing is hard to judge but from my arm chair analysts eye, it is at least average.

    When Cervelli was picked up originally i was yelling.. INJURY HISTORY… then when the pirates extended him i said.. um.. injury history?

    If Elias continues to be not bad through the regulars injuries i’d consider shopping Cervelli. also keeping in mind that Elias has some injury history too