PITTSBURGH—Like most little brothers, Elias Diaz, as he was growing up in Venezuela, wanted to imitate his big brother.
Diaz's older brother was a catcher. So when Diaz was 6 years old and played his first game, he felt it was only natural that he put on the catching gear, even though it likely weighed nearly as much as he did at the time.
“I loved it," he said. “That's all I wanted to do—be a catcher."
The Pittsburgh Pirates prospect has become so adept at playing the positon that he has won the 2015 Captain's Catcher Award for being the best defensive catcher in the minors.
“That's a great honor," Diaz said. “I take a lot of pride in my defense. Defense always comes first for me. I have to take care of the pitchers. That's the most important part of the job. All the rest comes after that."
Diaz, 24, is most noted for his strong arm. Though humble by nature, he lights up and shows extreme confidence when asked about his throwing.
“I feel like I am threat to throw anybody out who tries to challenge me," he said.
Diaz threw out 30 percent (14 of 46) runners attempting to steal this season at Triple-A Indianapolis. During his six minor league seasons, he has caught 29 percent (186 of 637).
“He's got a gun," said Tom Prince, who was a major league catcher for 17 seasons and managed Diaz at both high Class A Bradenton and Double-A Altoona.
While the arm is Diaz's best tool, the 6-foot, 210-pounder is also mobile behind the plate and sets a good target. He has become an above-average pitch framer, which is a point of emphasis throughout the organization.
“I threw to him in spring training and enjoyed it," veteran Pirates righthander A.J. Burnett said. “He knows what he's doing back there, especially for a young kid."
Righthander Tyler Glasnow, the organization's top prospect, finished this season at Indianapolis and also was paired with Diaz last year in the Arizona Fall League. Glasnow raves about Diaz.
“He's just a great defensive catcher," Glasnow said. “You don't realize how important a great defensive catcher is until you work with someone like him. He got me a ton of calls with the way he frames pitches. It's definitely a confidence booster with him behind the plate."
Diaz, though, takes special pride in his ability to work with his pitchers. It has been a process that hasn't always come easily because he arrived to his first spring training in 2008 at Bradenton, Fla., with the limited English vocabulary of “hello" and “how are you?"
Diaz worked hard to improve his English and now speaks to his teammates with ease.
“I tried real hard to learn English as soon as I came to the United States," Diaz said. “I still work hard at it. I try to learn a new word or a couple of words every day. It's very important to be able to communicate both at the ballpark and away from the park. I think my English has improved. It's not perfect but it's pretty good now."
Hitting A Crossroads
Diaz's hitting may have improved as dramatically as his English over the last three years after he struggled mightily at the plate during his first three seasons in the United States. He struggled at the plate in each of his first three seasons. Diaz understood he was at a crossroads in his career despite the great defensive tools. And he decided to do something about it by taking the more-is-less approach with the bat.
“You can't be a starting catcher in the major leagues if you aren't at least a decent hitter," Diaz said. “I knew what the problem was—I would panic when I was at the plate, put too much pressure on myself to try to get a hit.
“I knew I had to find a way to relax, take a deep breath and just relax. I quit worrying about hitting home runs, trying to hit the ball hard, and I concentrated on hitting the ball up the middle and hitting the ball the other way."
The results followed.
Diaz batted .279/.382/.399 in 220 plate appearances in 2013 with Bradenton, a combined .312/.366/.421 in 404 plate appearances with Altoona and Indianapolis last year and .271/.330/.382 in 363 plate appearances at Indy this season.
Diaz admitted being a step away from the major leagues caused him to revert to old habits at times this season, and Indianapolis hitting coach Butch Wynegar, who caught for 13 seasons in the majors, would rein him back in.
“My swing would get long and Butch would ask what I thought (Pirates manager) Clint Hurdle would expect of me if I got called up to the big leagues," Diaz said. “I knew what he meant. I just had to stay with the approach that worked for me."
Diaz received a September callup to serve as the third-string catcher behind veterans Francisco Cervelli and Chris Stewart.
Diaz clearly passed Tony Sanchez, the Pirates' first-round draft pick in 2009, on the organizational depth chart at catcher. Sanchez did not get a callup after Indianapolis lost to Columbus in the championship series in the International League.
Neither Cervelli nor Stewart are eligible for free agency until following the 2016 season, so the Pirates might opt to send Diaz back to Indianapolis for more development at the start of next season.
Future In The Show
Diaz isn't thinking that far ahead. He is just enjoying his first taste of the major leagues.
“I can't even describe how exciting it's been to be in the big leagues," Diaz said. “It's been a dream come true.
“I've learned a lot. So much more of the game is mental in the big leagues, especially with all the scouting reports and information you have on all the hitters. I've learned a lot just being in the scouting meetings and listening to coaches and other catchers talk."
The Pirates believe Diaz's late-season callup is just the beginning for a prospect who has been named his league's best defensive catcher in BA's Best Tools surveys three years running.
“Elias has progressed every year defensively—and as a complete player," Pirates assistant general manager Kyle Stark said. “He has always had some impressive physical tools, but has worked hard to refine them. He has worked on his release to help his above-average arm strength play quick and accurate. He has worked on his receiving to enhance his already solid hands. And he has worked hard to understand game plans, attacking hitters, and general pitch philosophies.
“His growth on the offensive side of the ball is obvious, and that has come down to him slowing himself down—mentally and physically—and committing to a solid attack plan."