Paul Abbott saw Luis Diaz up close two years ago when the former Major League hurler coached the Venezuelan right-hander at Class A Short-Season Lowell. He was impressed by Diaz's intelligence and dedication, but mostly, he remembered loving Diaz's change-up.
Abbott and Diaz were reunited this summer at Class A Greenville, and what Abbott found in Diaz was a much more diverse set of offerings.
Now relying on a consistent three-pitch mix, Diaz handcuffed Kannapolis' hitters Sunday. The right-hander didn't allow a hit until the sixth inning, finishing with nine strikeouts over seven one-hit frames in a 3-0 victory.
"He had good command of all three of his pitches, and he mixed them up very well," Abbott said. "The last few times out, he's had good life on the fastball and been able to angle it down to the bottom of the zone. His slider was good with sharp, late break and good command. He's always had an outstanding changeup."
Diaz has made giant strides since struggling through 20 appearances with Greenville in 2012. He posted a 6.01 ERA with 62 strikeouts and 28 walks in 91 1/3 innings last year. After some extra time in extended spring training this season, his ERA is down to 3.38, and he's posted a 38-to-12 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 40 innings.
Abbott just moved to Greenville this season, and his familiarity with Diaz has helped unlock some of the hurler's potential. The pitching coach saw promise in Diaz's fastball in 2011, when he went 4-4 with a 2.53 ERA in the New York-Penn League. Diaz would flash above-average velocity then, but because he was still growing into his body and his mechanics were not especially refined, the offering wasn't consistent.
With a few tweaks and a few years of growth, the pitch has become a weapon for the right-hander this season. Abbott said it now sits between 92-95 mph now, and has become more effective as the 6-foot-3 Diaz has gotten better at working the pitch down in the zone.
Mechanically, Abbott thinks Diaz's greatest strides have come as he's learned to be more explosive off the mound.
"We've been trying to get him to stay on the rubber a little longer," Abbott said. "He tends to drift and get ahead of his arm so the ball stays elevated. He's done a good job staying over the rubber and getting much better angle."
The tweaks in his delivery have also helped Diaz develop an effective slider, which he mixed in regularly Sunday. Learning the breaking pitch was a point of emphasis for Diaz in 2012, when he struggled in his first run at the South Atlantic League.
"It was something he didn't really have, mainly because he would drift so much," Abbott said. "He couldn't get his arm up in time and get in front with it to get the life he needed. He's just gotten so much better with staying on the rubber."
As the fastball and slider have rounded into form, Diaz has maintained the change-up, which draws rave reviews from Abbott for its change of speed, deception, movement and consistency.
"It really complements his fastball and even more so the last few times out," Abbott said. "It mirrors his fastball. It's a good, swing-and-miss change-up with good arm speed that drops away from lefties, and he uses it against right-handers as well.
"He has very good arm speed with a good change of pace on the velocity. Even if they're remotelypossibly looking for the change, there's enough movement for him to get away with it."
Diaz retired the first 15 hitters he faced in order. Eric Grabe snapped the no-hit bid with a single to start the sixth inning, but was stranded as Diaz induced a flyout to center before fanning Kale Kiser and Micah Johnson to end the frame.
The right-hander allowed a two-out walk to Keon Barnum in the seventh, but induced three groundouts to finish his day. Jeffrey Wendelken picked up a two-inning save, allowing a hit while striking out three.