Detroit Tigers self-taught draft pick Jatnk Diaz’s story is right out of a fairytale

Detroit Free Press

You start to learn about Jatnk Diaz, the Detroit Tigerseighth-round pick on Monday, and hear his wild backstory, and follow all the twists and turns of how he got discovered, and you come to a clear conclusion: This is the craziest draft story ever.

“He’s gonna be elite,” said Jesse Litsch, who pitched for the Toronto Blue Jays for five seasons and helped Diaz get drafted. “A special talent. I think the Tigers got a steal for sure. He’s gonna be a kid throwing over 100 — he’s gonna be that guy. He’s gonna be probably a back of the bullpen guy, if not starting.”

You hear person after person talk about Diaz’s character and drive and everything he’s overcome. “I could talk about Jatnk all day,” you are told over and over from everybody you call in Hazelton, a small town in eastern Pennsylvania that was decimated when the coal mines shut down.

You find out about the magic in his arm, his natural ability to throw a baseball harder than darn near everybody else on the planet and you think: This cannot be real; this should be a movie.

Diaz learned to pitch by throwing into a net at a recreation center, didn’t play baseball his senior year of high school, has never had a pitching coach and has thrown maybe 50 innings in his entire life; and you think: This gives me some hope in the Tigers’ new front office.

After seeing him pitch, a Kansas City Royals scout blurted: “I’ve never seen anything like this in 25 years. You will never again see anything like this.”

A humble, quiet beginning

Diaz was born in the Dominican Republic and moved to the U.S. with his mother and two siblings when he was in junior high because his family was trying to find a better life. After a brief stop in New Jersey, they settled in Hazelton, which has a large population of Dominicans.

As a freshman, Diaz showed up for tryouts at Hazleton Area High School, a massive school with 3,600 students and a strong reputation for making runs in the state baseball tournament.

“At tryouts I remember, obviously right away, noticing this 14-year-old kid who was 6-foot-4 and probably 220 pounds,” said Russ Canzler, the Hazleton varsity baseball coach. “Just the physicality right away and he hit the ball a ton, driving the baseball. You saw the arm strength but at the time, he said, ‘I really don’t pitch. I’m a hitter.’ ”

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Diaz, who didn’t speak a lot of English, played on the junior varsity team.

“Did very well,” Canzler said. “Didn’t really pitch a lot, which is kind of a theme of the next couple of years.”

Canzler had strong baseball credentials. He had played 13 years of professional ball, including two seasons in MLB with Tampa Bay and Cleveland, and he thought Diaz could become a college prospect as a hitter. Diaz had the size, natural hitting ability, an impressive exit velocity and played first base.

“The following season was 2019-2020 season, which obviously was COVID,” Canzler said. “So, in January of 2020, before the pandemic, Jatnk left the country. He went back down to the Dominican with his dad and tried to come back but the pandemic didn’t allow international travel, so he couldn’t get back in time. Long story short, he missed the entire second semester of the 2020 school year.”

He reclassified for the class of 2023.

At the time, he had no idea how that would profoundly affect his baseball career.

Diaz played two more seasons in high school, never really pitching a lot. Because he didn’t really throw that hard at the time, and Hazelton was loaded with pitchers.

“He is one of the more blessed natural, gifted baseball players that I’ve seen,” Canzler said. “We would put him on the Rapsodo device for hitting that measures all the metrics that people want to see. He has big-league bat speed and big-league exit velocity. He’s 118-120 mph off the bat.

“So, he didn’t pitch a lot for us in high school.”

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His family didn’t have much money — his mother worked two jobs, including sorting boxes at Amazon — but folks in this generous, blue-collar community came together to give him rides to his part-time job and to games and practices, and sponsors paid for him to play some travel baseball, and somebody even got him a suit for prom.

Canzler was also a travel baseball coach and took Diaz on his first trip, because his mother couldn’t afford to take time off.

“We were playing at a Perfect Game event and it was in Atlantic City,” Canzler said. “We were able to get him a hotel room and chaperone him for that for that weekend and we were right on the boardwalk. He played great. Back then, he didn’t speak good English and I remember explaining to him, ‘Hey, that’s it. Tomorrow’s our last day. We got to head back.’

“And he was in tears. He didn’t want to leave.”

Diaz said: “This is the best weekend of my life.”

An amazing transformation

On Aug. 19, 2022, Diaz announced his commitment to East Stroudsburg, a Division II university about an hour east of Hazelton. He listed himself as a first baseman and pitcher, but the truth is, he wasn’t much of a pitcher. He was topping out at 88 mph.

Diaz played fall ball with Baseball U PA, a massive travel program.

“Probably the nicest kid you’d ever meet, extremely grateful for everything,” said Mike Guy, who coached the team. “He comes from an underprivileged background, with not a lot of support, but he is so respectful. Thankful. What a great teammate he is. He’s funny, really positive in the dugout. He reminds me of Miguel Cabrera, his personality, it’s like he’s a huge kid.”

Baseball U PA, a well-connected organization, has produced 131 MLB draft picks, according to a banner stripped across its webpage.

But no scouts were showing interest in Diaz.

While his mother was working to support the family, Jantz tried to do his part. He had a part-time job at Hazelton Area Recreation Program, working 15 hours a week.

Christine Provanzo, the executive director at HARP, or her husband, would pick Diaz up in the morning and bring him to the facility or take him home at night.

HARP had a fantastic, well-equipped weight room, thanks to a donor, and Diaz had access to a cutting-edge weightlifting program that he could access through his phone.

And he started working out like crazy.

“I saw him at one point this offseason and I was like, ‘Who is this guy?’ ” Canzler said. “He got lean muscle on him. He’s throwing; he’s working hard. He was in the gym, five days a week.”

HARP had a portable pitching mound and he started throw into a net.

He was working on his own, transforming himself into a legit prospect. Even if nobody knew it yet.

“He was just throwing and throwing and throwing,” Provanzo said. “He’s got this drive that I have never seen in anybody.”

Diaz had no plan. No coaching. No ramp-up. No arm care. No idea what he was doing. He’d just chuck that ball into the net.

“How did you learn the different pitches?” I asked him.

From watching my favorite players on TV,” he said.

As his baby fat melted away and he became stronger, his velocity started skyrocketing.

On Feb. 21, he threw a bullpen as one of his buddies videotaped it and another held a pocket radar gun. He would throw a pitch and glance back, wondering about the number. His velocity was around 90-92 mph, with a max of 93. He posted the video on Twitter.

The next day, he hit 95, a new personal record. Another tweet.

A week later, he posted a series of videos on Twitter. He was sitting 93-95, and scouts started noticing.

“A couple of local scouts called me and said, ‘Hey, what’s Diaz up to?’ ” Canzler said. “I said, ‘He’s in great frickin’ shape, man. He really worked hard this offseason.’”

Losing his senior season

Now, here comes the twist.

The Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association ruled that Diaz was ineligible to compete this spring because he had already used up his allotted four years.

“Once you start playing a sport, you have four years to play that sport, no matter what,” Canzler said.

Even if he got stuck in another country because of COVID.

Diaz was so well-liked and had such a sterling reputation that a group of teachers and administrators tried to offer their support, writing letters or getting a lawyer.

“Little kids love him, and adults love him, and the teachers love him,” Canzler said. “There were people that were willing to help him in any way they could.”

But his season was lost, and Diaz went into a funk.

“He got very depressed, which was hard to see,” Provanzo said. “Because he is so positive. He is so dedicated, and he knows what he wants.”

But the scouts still wanted to see him pitch. Because of what he had posted on Twitter.

One scout passed through Hazelton and said he’d take a look at Diaz.

But Diaz didn’t have a car, so he grabbed his stuff and ran 10 blocks from where he lived in the projects to the high school.

But he was late and the scout left, saying he’d return later.

“I’ll never let that happen again,” Diaz vowed.

Luckily, the scouts kept coming back to town because Hazleton was blessed to have another stud pitcher, Brett Antolick, a right-handed pitcher committed to Texas A&M.

So, everybody started telling the scouts: “Hey, you should look at Jatnk and just have him throw. Even if it’s just a bullpen.”

Once the season started, some scouts went to see Antolick pitch in a game and stayed to see Diaz throw a bullpen after it.

“They would have the guns out, and then it kind of progressed,” Canzler said.

Word started to spread.

“I’m getting more calls, ‘What’s going on? I’m hearing about this kid from Hazleton. What’s his situation? Why isn’t he playing high school baseball? What’s the deal here? What happened?’ ” Canzler said.

Then the scouts wanted to see him face hitters.

So Canzler set up mock games using his junior varsity players.

“At that time, Jantz was throwing 96-97 and I was afraid if I put a varsity starter in there and they take one off the wrist, I’m going to be sick,” Canzler said.

“There was an awesome moment, like at the halfway point in high school season where there were a few scouts there, and he was pitching. Jantz pitched great. Everything was a strike. Everything was loud.”

Diaz was darting every pitch: fastball bottom of the zone, slider bottom of the zone, changeup at the bottom of the zone.

And the scouts were like, “This is like that movie, ‘Trouble with the Curve.’ This is that moment where you see this kid and you’re like, ‘Who is this kid? What is he doing? We can’t ignore this. We have to call this in.’ ”

“I still get chills when I think about that moment,” Canzler said.

Then, the scouts wanted even more.

They wanted to see him pitch in a real game, and he was invited to the MLB Draft League.

Race against the clock

After graduating from Hazelton in June, Diaz joined the Williamsport Crosscutters in the MLB Draft League.

It’s summer ball essentially for potential draft picks, both college juniors and high school seniors. His team played in Williamsport, Pennslyvania — on the same field where MLB teams play every summer in their visit to the Little League World Series, so it was outfitted with all the latest equipment that measures spin rates and velocity.

“It was cool to see this young kid that just drove in with a friend and a friend’s mom, and she just dropped him off and said, ‘Here you go, go play some baseball,” said Litsch, 38.

When Diaz showed up, Litsch knew almost nothing about him.

“I knew the kid had an electric arm and we weren’t really sure what to expect,” Litsch said.

Diaz pitched his first game on June 11, throwing two innings and retiring all six batters, hitting 96.5 mph.

“He went out like it was nothing, and it was definitely a breath of fresh air at the time,” Litsch said.

“What did you see?” I asked.

“I saw an 18-year-old kid that had no clue how good he was,” Litsch said. “Mechanically, he’s pretty sound.”

Only a handful of scouts saw that first game because Diaz was so unknown. So off the radar.

But that one moment said so much about him.

He hadn’t pitched in a real game in more than a year. Now, suddenly, he was facing college hitters who were draft prospects.

“He went out there, threw strikes, challenged hitters and was not scared,” Litsch said. “He just competed.”

Think about that: That was only a month before the draft.

Here were his stats from that game, according to the MLB draft Twitter account: fastball, 94-97, 2,286 rpm, 41.2 % whiff rate; slider: 2,726 rpm.

“He had no idea how good he was,” he said. “I’m like, ‘Dude, you’re really good. So run with it.’ ”

In his second outing on June 21, Diaz threw three innings, striking out two with no walks with a fastball averaging 92-95 mph.

Litsch saw enough to realize that Diaz was the real deal.

“I was like, ‘Oh boy, now I gotta try to help this kid out as much as possible,’ ” Litsch said.

Highly connected, he started texting friends and scouts and former coaches, telling them about this righty who seemed to come out of nowhere.

Litsch told everybody: “Y’all need to come see this kid. He’s elite.”

Suddenly, scouts and cross-checkers were rushing to Williamsport to watch him play.

“It became a packed house every time he pitched,” he said.

But the draft was approaching, and this was happening so last minute for a process that can stretch years. Teams were putting the finishing touches on their draft evaluations, not starting reports on unknown prospects.

“Nobody knew who he was,” Litsch said.

Some teams might have been afraid at all of the unknowns: What was his story? Why did he leave the Dominican Republic? What did he do prior to getting to America?

“I think, some of these teams were up in the air,” Litsch said. “The talent is there. So, what’s wrong with this kid?”

Actually, nothing. Just circumstance. He simply developed out of nowhere.

“He’s a great kid, great teammate, picked up his teammates, even on social media,” Litsch said. “Just wants to play baseball.”

A Tigers area scout was following Diaz, and Litsch started texting with Mike Metcalf, the Tigers’ East Coast cross-checker.

All these connections and the reports started adding up, and the Tigers sent a team of evaluators to get eyes on him.

On July 7 — two days before the draft — Diaz pitched in the MLB Draft League’s all-star game. He got hit but he didn’t fold. He kept attacking — and that’s what some scouts loved about him.

Brian Recca, from Prospects Live, sent out this tweet: “Strong/loose arm but raw mechanics. Stuff was LOUD! FB 94-97 up to 98. Slider flashed good shape/pot. Super intriguing kid for teams to develop.”

He was touching 98 but it wasn’t just the velocity — it was how it looked so easy.

“He’s not a max effort guy, which is what scouts are looking for in a pitcher,” Litsch said.

Diaz lacked consistent metrics but some of the numbers flashed to elite levels.

“That’s what scouts like to see — they know it’s in there,” Litsch said. “His slider was really sharp and changeup was okay initially, and then he started throwing it more and it became really good.”

Tigers take calculated gamble

Before the draft, Canzler had no idea where Diaz might go in the draft.

But he sensed a change in how the scouts were talking.

It went from who is this kid? to what’s his number? How much will it take to sign him?

“I was like, wow, this is really going to happen,” Canzler said. “I talked to a scout friend who said, ‘It’s not a matter of if he’s gonna get drafted, it’s now when?’”

With so much uncertainty around Diaz, the draft became a dramatic game of cat-and-mouse: What team was going to hit the sweet spot, waiting as long as possible but still nab him before anybody else?

Diaz didn’t go on the first day of the draft, covering the first 70 picks.

But on Monday afternoon, Canzler was coaching a travel game, standing in the third-base coaches’ box, and he got a phone call from Diaz.

“Hey, what’s up?” Canzler said.

“Coach, I think the Tigers are gonna take me in the eighth round,” Diaz said. “What do you think I should do?”

“What do you want to do?” Canzler asked.

“I want to sign,” Diaz said.

“Do it!” Canzler said. “Let’s go!”

The Tigers took him with the 230th overall pick.

“Amazing!” Diaz said. “A lot of hard work. I can tell you that.”

On Monday night, members of the Tigers front office talked to members of the media, going over every player they had selected.

And they were asked about Diaz.

“We kind of talk about scouting opportunities, and he is a great example of the hard work by the entire staff,” scouting director Mark Conner said, when talking about Diaz. “He was ineligible this year and unable to pitch for his high school team. Not for academic reasons, but just for the move from the Dominican Republic and the timing. He would throw bullpens on the side, and our guys got a chance to see him there and tracked him into the Draft League, where a bunch of our staff got to see him. He’s a big, strong, strapping young man that’s got a lively fastball and some real feel for a changeup. He’s an exciting player.”

Those who know Diaz and have seen him pitch think he actually would have gone higher in the draft if he had played this spring and had a more traditional season.

So, in some respects, his ineligibility was a break for the Tigers.

But his selection also shows something else: How nimble the Tigers were in the draft process, how prepared they were from the area scouts to the front office, and how they were willing to take a chance on someone with so much raw talent and upside, betting their development department will turn him into a big-leaguer.

Now, the real work begins

One benefit from not playing much the last few years: His arm is still fresh. He hasn’t logged many innings, like most kids who come up through the summer travel circuit — many start pitching when they are 8 or 9.

“I can easily see this kid being a consistent 100 mile per hour kid,” Canzler said. “His arm actions are very loose. I hate making comparisons, because everyone’s their own player, but there’s a tremendous arm-side run like Ivan Nova.”

Nova, also from the Dominican Republic, pitched 11 MLB seasons, including his final one in Detroit.

“I faced Ivan Nova a bunch of times in my career in the minors,” Canzler said. “I see similarities.”

Diaz is like a lump of clay — a large one, standing 6-4 and 225 pounds — just waiting to be molded, and he’s going to offer the Tigers’ developmental staff a tremendous opportunity to teach him everything. He doesn’t have any bad habits, because he has no habits. Just natural ability.

But that’s also the challenge. It’s more than polishing his mechanics. It’s teaching him how to take care of his arm. How to get ready for a season. How to make adjustments. And what to do after games and between starts. It will be a fascinating project to follow.

Then, there is the mental side.

Scouts would ask Canzler: How will he handle this?

And Canzler would laugh. Here was a kid who left his home, left his friends, came to a new country and couldn’t speak English. But he taught himself by watching TV and reading the subtitles.

He had to live independently, as his mother worked two jobs.

He has so much inner drive he would go to a rec center and just throw into a net, hoping to get better.

“He’s had a different life than a lot and he’s looked out for himself,” Canzler said. “The golden question is, how will he handle failure? You’re gonna fail, you’re gonna get hit. You’re gonna have bad outings.”

How will he handle that?

“I don’t know if anyone ever knows the answer to that question until they go through it,” Canzler said. “That’s something that a player has to figure out within themselves if they have it or not. I feel like he’s definitely ready for this. We’ve had a lot of great conversations and he’s not a goofball. He’s not a partier. His best night is hanging out having a good dinner and watching a movie. He just loves to play baseball.”

On Wednesday, after the draft ended, Diaz was getting antsy.

He texted Litsch: “Hey, when do I go to Florida? What’s the deal? What’s going on?”

Litsch texted him back: “’Hey, relax. You’re gonna be there. They just finished the draft.’

“He just wants to play baseball.”

Contact Jeff Seidel at jseidel@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @seideljeff.

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