Elias Diaz evolving into the catcher Rockies have long needed

Finding a sturdy defensive catcher who can handle a pitching staff, hit for power and post a decent batting average has long been the Rockies’ holy grail.

With Elias Diaz, they just might have fulfilled their quest.

“For me, he has really proven to be a very solid major league catcher,” manager Bud Black said Wednesday before the Rockies played the Braves at Truist Park. “There are some good young ones and some veteran catchers around who are very solid. But you can put Diaz in the conversation in a lot of the skill sets.”

The numbers back up Black’s opinion. Diaz has thrown out 43.2% of would-be base stealers, the best mark in the majors. Diaz’s 16 putouts of would-be thieves are tied for sixth. Diaz’s six defensive runs saved rank ninth in the majors, according to Fielding Bible.com.

In Colorado’s 5-4 win over Atlanta on Tuesday night, Diaz threw out leadoff hitter Ozzie Albies when Albies attempted to steal second base in the fifth inning. It was only the third time in 20 steal attempts this season that Albies had been thrown out.

“The thing that stands out the most, and it’s hard not to see it, is the arm strength,” Black said. “I mean, Elias has got a cannon. And arguably, he might have the strongest arm in the league, as far as just pure arm strength. In the second half of the season, he’s shown a great deal of accuracy with his throws as well.”

Black also rattles off Diaz’s other attributes behind the dish.

“We’ve also seen (improvement) in the finer points of catching — the blocking technique, his soft hands, plays at the plate, pop-up (times),” Black said. “All of those things, he’s very solid. I’ve got to give (catching coach) Mike Redmond and (bullpen catcher) Aaron Munoz a lot of credit for their work with Elias.”

At the plate, Diaz’s 180-degree turn has been something of a revelation. On June 1, after going 0-for-1 as a pinch-hitter vs. Texas, Diaz was hitting .123 with a .191 on-base percentage and .376 OPS. He hit just one home run in his first 55 games. Since then, he’s slashed .277/.346/.564 with 16 home runs, 13 doubles, one triple.

His 17 home runs are a career-high, rank fourth among National League catchers and are the most by a Rockies catcher since Wilin Rosario hit 19 in 2013.

“The two biggest things for me (are) maintaining a good solid plan at the plate and keeping things as simple as possible,” Diaz said. “And once you get to play every day, it’s easier to make adjustments and have more confidence at the plate. I made some good adjustments and playing every day has helped.”

Back in May, when Diaz often looked helpless at the plate, Black and the rest of the coaching staff kept the faith. They knew Diaz had talent. What he lacked was the confidence that comes with success.

“He got off to a rough start,” Black said. “Once he dug himself a hole, he dug himself a little deeper by trying to dig his way out of it and trying too hard. He was trying to go 4-for-3 each night instead of, maybe, 1-for-4. He put a lot of pressure on himself to get hits. You cannot do that.

“And then, he turned the corner. We always thought that he could do that. We always felt that the ability to hit, and hit with power, was part of his skill set.”

Diaz, who turns 31 on Nov. 17, has played in 87 games this season, starting 78 of them. Black is well aware of the wear and tear on a catcher who plays half his games at altitude at Coors Field, but he believes Diaz can start 100 or more games next season.

“It’s a combination of the physical strength and the durability, and the work capacity,” Black said. “And also (his) mental strength to withstand the rigors of catching. It’s a mindset, it truly is.”

Diaz, who’s making $1.2 million this season, will enter his final year of arbitration after this season. He’s scheduled to become a free agent after the 2022 season.

Footnotes. Right-hander Peter Lambert continues on track to make his major league return before the end of the season. Lambert, who underwent Tommy John surgery last summer, was with the Rockies on Tuesday in Atlanta and threw a bullpen session. He’s scheduled to pitch three innings for Triple-A Albuquerque on Thursday at Sugar Land, Texas. … Outfielder Sam Hilliard, who was hit on the left elbow by a 96 mph fastball from Phillies starter Zack Wheeler in the top of the second inning on Saturday, was back in the starting lineup Wednesday at Atlanta. Hilliard did not play in the Rockies’ last two ballgames.

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