Major League Baseball
How Yainer Díaz is preparing to be the Astros’ full-time catcher
Major League Baseball

How Yainer Díaz is preparing to be the Astros’ full-time catcher

Updated Feb. 18, 2024 7:20 p.m. ET

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — It's the moment Astros fans have not so patiently been waiting for: Yainer Díaz has entered spring training as Houston's full-time catcher.

One of Diaz's first assignments of the spring was, no big deal, catching new closer Josh Hader in a tense bullpen session. Though it was already warm in sunny South Florida, Hader brought more heat on Friday morning in his second side session of camp so far. Hader huddled with Díaz before they began, using his hands to help describe where he'd like the young catcher to set up behind the plate.

If Díaz was fazed by Hader's intensity over the 10-minute session, he didn't show it. And Hader didn't hold back, as the battery tried to become familiar with one another. At one point, Hader shook his head in disappointment at his own pitch location. And after another pitch, Hader pointed his finger toward the sky and implored Díaz to set up "just a little bit higher, please." Díaz's youthful face and shy disposition might give away his mere 110 games of MLB experience. But his patience and desire to learn, all while gearing up to catch an All-Star quartet of Justin Verlander, Framber Valdez, Ryan Pressly and Hader, mark the signs of a budding leader.

"From the first day that I met him I saw that he was a simple guy," Díaz said about catching Hader on Friday. "So he gave me confidence when I went out there and caught his bullpen. I went out there with a lot of confidence. It was pretty easy."


Díaz appeared in 60 games, including 42 starts, behind the dish last year under former Astros manager Dusty Baker. His slugging likely warranted more playing time; Houston's owner recently said as much. When he did play, Díaz enjoyed a breakout season at the plate. He slashed .282/.308/.538 with 23 home runs across 377 plate appearances to generate a 128 OPS+. That earned him a fifth-place finish in the American League Rookie of the Year race.

While Díaz's predecessor was constantly lauded by Astros pitchers, particularly Verlander, for his catching prowess, a slugging backstop will be a breath of fresh air in Houston.

"We're going to play our young catcher a lot," Astros owner Jim Crane told PaperCity Magazine this week. "He didn't get a lot of action this past season."

Crane was echoing the overall sentiment of his base. Last season, Astros fans were often frustrated with Baker and his coaching staff for not using Díaz more. Veteran backstop Martín Maldonado, currently a free agent, received the bulk of the starts, and it certainly wasn't for his bat. Maldonado produced a 66 OPS+ in 2023, which was only slightly worse than his career mark (72). The longtime incumbent also started all 11 games of the Astros' ALCS run last year and hit .143, although Díaz went just 1-for-14 at the plate while primarily serving as a late-inning replacement. 

Díaz said the one element of Maldonado's regimen he is trying to incorporate into his own is being fully prepared before games. Maldonado was known for his unmatched, borderline excessive, preparation. The veteran catcher would spend up to three-and-a-half hours studying opposing hitters prior to each series. Maldonado would do that so his pitchers would have help if they needed it on the mound. Already, the 25-year-old Díaz has stressed how important helping out pitchers is to him. In that way, the relationships he develops with his pitchers will be paramount.

"I think my biggest challenge will be trying to help them in the moments where they maybe can't find it themselves," Díaz said. "Obviously, we're all human. So just trying to navigate those moments where they're having a little bit of an issue finding who they are. I think that's going to be the biggest challenge for me this year."

What else did Maldonado tell Díaz about how to be a successful catcher?

​​"A lot of different things," Díaz said. "But one of the biggest ones was not trying to do too much before the games. Try not to tire myself out beforehand. But everything from good sleep, eating well, and staying flexible, stretching a lot. Just want to keep my body well-fed and flexible."

There is a ton of pressure resting on his 6-foot-0, 195-pound frame, even if Díaz said he tries not to view his new role as such. He has big shoes to fill, defensively, and a lot to prove, too. There will always be a learning curve when it comes to young catchers studying their pitching staffs and opposing hitters around the league. But the rate of that progress will be under the microscope in Houston as the club looks to get back to the World Series. This could be the last year the Astros have Verlander and Alex Bregman, two staples of their successful championship run, playing on the same squad. 

The Astros know they must maximize the opportunity in front of them. Díaz knows the positive impact he can have on the club, as long as he's prepared.

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He walked into camp with a fresh mentality brought on by accepting the responsibilities of a full-time catcher. All that's left is, in Díaz's words, to "let things flow." He's not getting ahead of himself. He's not counting a set number of games he'd like to catch. He's not intimidated by the star-studded cast of characters depending on him to throw a good game. The Astros are in full agreement that, so far, Díaz has done everything right. The only remaining step is to bring that preparation into the next eight months.

"He's ready for this challenge," Astros manager Joe Espada said. "It's a day by day thing. He's not going to figure everything out all at once. He's asking all the right questions. I've been around young catchers in the past, and sometimes we want them to grasp things quickly, but sometimes it just takes time. Sometimes you just gotta be patient. But we know he has all the tools to be a really good catcher for a very long time."

Deesha Thosar is an MLB writer for FOX Sports. She previously covered the Mets as a beat reporter for the New York Daily News. The daughter of Indian immigrants, Deesha grew up on Long Island and now lives in Queens. Follow her on Twitter at @DeeshaThosar.


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