The Devastation of Danny Salazar

Breaking out for three consecutive years certainly has some positive elements to it, but it also means that the first two breakouts did not completely take. After failing to make the rotation out of Spring Training, Danny Salazar might have moved himself from potential breakout star to post-hype sleeper. After his hot start, the sleeper tag has been removed, and only a potential star remains. Salazar has had periods of dominance in each of the last last three seasons, but those dominant stretches have been followed by problem periods. This is now the fourth time Salazar has been called upon to for an extended role in Cleveland’s rotation, and Salazar, helped by his previous experiences, is now pitching as well as anyone in Major League Baseball. Consider his first roughly-30 innings each time.

IP K% BB% HR/9 ERA FIP xFIP
August 2013 31.0 30.4 8.0 1.7 3.19 4.08 3.02
April 2014 30.1 26.8 10.1 1.8 5.93 4.65 3.50
July 2014 33.0 24.1 6.6 0.6 3.27 2.92 3.59
April 2015 33.0 37.2 3.9 1.4 3.27 2.94 2.01

Salazar again finished strong to end 2014, but in between the strong finish and his strong start this year was a slow start in Spring Training that kept him from making the Opening Day rotation. He made his first start on April 18th, and has pitched extremely well during that time. In 33 innings, Salazar has struck out 48 hitters against just five walks, leading MLB in strikeout percentage (37%) by seven points over James Shields and Clayton Kershaw as well as K%-BB% (33%) by five points over Michael Pineda. Salazar has improved his slider, which caused a lot of damage in 2014, and introduced a curve, but the main difference between this season and last has been the increased usage of his killer splitter/change.*

Pitch f/x classifies the pitch as a change and Brooks Baseball calls it a splitter. He grips it similar to a splitter, and it is a pitch he has had since coming up to the big leagues.

Salazar is still tinkering with his pitch mix. He threw 28 sinkers against the Kansas City Royals, and his curve and slider have gotten mixed usage as he continues to up the use of split-change. Salazar had reportedly made a major move forward with his slider in the spring and early part of the season, although he has yet to use it with any great frequency.

Slider Usage Velocity (mph) Hor. Mov. (in.) Ver. Mov. Whiff
1st Half 2014 9% 86 1.8 1.4 14%
2nd Half 2014 14% 87 1.8 2.6 18%
1st Half 2015 7% 87 0.8 2.9 18%

For Salazar, making a major move forward with his slider would mean limiting damage on a pitch that has caused him problems. His whiff rate on the pitch is solid, but Salazar’s main problem with the slider was location. Here is the zone map for his slider last season, from Brooks Baseball.

Salazar_Slider_2014

Despite throwing the pitch infrequently, five of his 13 home runs against in 2014 came from the slider. Salazar left the pitch over the plate too often and when he did so, hitters did damage, like David Freese toward the end of the 2014 season.

The pitch dips to the low part of the strike zone, but it is still in the middle of the plate, and Freese has no problem going down to get it. In, 2015, Salazar has been much better about avoiding the middle of the plate.

Salazar_Slider_2015

He is still getting the same number of swings and misses that he has in the past, but by avoiding the middle part of the plate, hitters have not been able to do any damage on the pitch this season in limited usage. The pitch was on display in his strikeout of Kendrys Morales in his start on May 5th against the Kansas City Royals.

Limiting damage on the slider has helped Salazar and development of the curve has given hitters something else to think about, but the most significant change to Salazar’s pitching has been increased use of the split-change, per Brooks Baseball.

Change/Splitter Usage Velocity (mph) Hor. Mov. (in.) Ver. Mov. Whiff
1st Half 2014 15% 84 -4.3 1.4 27%
2nd Half 2014 9% 85 -3.6 2.0 24%
1st Half 2015 26% 87 -4.4 2.6 32%

The pitch has been incredibly successful throughout Salazar’s career, and it is effective against batters from both sides of the plate. Here it is against Omar Infante.

Here it is against Alex Gordon

The pitch has become a go-to for Salazar. Thirty of his 48 strikeouts have come on the split-change. In his last start against the Minnesota Twins, he used his fastball and split-change almost exclusively, with 50 fastballs and 40 split-changes among his 102 pitches. In 2014, Salazar went to his fastball a majority of the time to try and get the strikeout, but this season he has gone with an equal mix of fastball and split-change with two strikes. He has gone to the split-change on 10 3-2 counts this season and gotten nine swings, walking just one hitter, striking out four and not allowing a hit.

With Two Strikes 2014 2015
Fastball 58% 44%
Sinker 5% 3%
Slider 13% 5%
Change 2% 0%
Curve 1% 2%
Splitter 21% 46%

There are still some concerns with Salazar. He has given up five home runs early on, all on the fastball, and the long ball has been a problem for Salazar throughout his career. He throws a first-pitch strike to hitters just 48% of the time, worst among qualified starters this season. Salazar makes a majority of pitches outside of the strike zone, with his 43.1% zone percentage 20th from the bottom. That number does not preclude success or necessarily mean that a high number of walks are on the way. Last season, the five pitchers with the closest zone percentage to Salazar’s current-season number were Felix Hernandez, Mark Buehrle, Dan Haren, Wade Miley, and Jake Peavy. Salazar has the stuff that can work out of the zone so long as the hitters are swinging.

After Salazar’s strong 2013 finish, a breakout was expected in 2014, and there was hope even in his early struggles. He was slowed by injuries, but again finished strong in 2014, bringing more hope that Salazar had turned the corner as a potential ace. Another slow start, this time in March, kept Salazar off the radar very briefly this season, but Salazar has returned with a force. With just under 200 innings in his career, he has produced close to four wins. Perhaps falling under the category of post-hype sleeper, Salazar is beginning to justify the hype, and he serves as a reminder that adjustments to the big-league level can be difficult and they can take a bit of time. Pitching poorly can be educational. Salazar is not finished learning at the highest level, but his progress has moved forward, and right now, Salazar is pitching better than he has ever pitched and he is one of the best pitchers in baseball.





Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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novaether
7 years ago

Salazar has a 41.7% HR/FB ratio on his fastball this year. Last year, that number was 6%. I’m much less worried about the homers than I am about the F-Strike%, but that hasn’t seem to manifest into any many walks. Perhaps the scariest part of his numbers so far is that his strikeout totals are so gaudy when he’s faced the Royals in 2 of his 5 starts. Imagine what he could do against the Cubs.

Much like winter, regression is coming. Unlike winter, I wouldn’t be scared of it if I were Danny Salazar.

rustydudemember
7 years ago
Reply to  novaether

Yes, two of the starts are vs KC, but two other starts are vs MN. Sorta balances out.

novaether
7 years ago
Reply to  rustydude

The Twins certainly are not an offense to be worried about, but they barely strike out more than league average. In fact, if you take out their plate appearances vs. Salazar, they’ve got a 20.1 K% when the average is about 20%. When you take out Salazar’s starts against the Royals, they’ve got a 14.0% K%