What is wrong with Danny Salazar?

Danny Salazar is a model of inconsistency; be it a fastball he rarely commands, a fiery hair-doo with its highlights and darkness or a seeming distaste for efficient innings. Yet, all of these above inconsistencies were apropos when Salazar was stringing together an All-Star appearance in 2016, and an All-Star caliber season in 2015.  The Indians can look fondly on 484 innings of a low-end No. 2 starter or high-end No. 3 starter production and wonder where it has gone in 2017 during Salazar’s 47 innings of mediocrity.  A 5.55 ERA and 4.75 FIP scream concerns while a 3.33 xFIP would have fans believe that better things are to come.1

Salazar’s profile has always been a strange one with an above average fastball, devastating split-change, and lack of command. He leave us thinking he could be something more, something special. This arsenal is sound enough to provide the results of an above average big league pitcher, but 2017 has not been so. While the ERA and FIP demonstrate it, there are three different peripherals that stick out due to their extreme nature in 2017: a rising strike out rate,2 an absurdly high BABIP against,3 and a home run to flyball ratio which is essentially twice that of his career average. Still, these stats I am citing are essentially outcome differences whereas the purpose of looking at Salazar’s season is attempting to isolate some basis for adverse outcomes.

The absurdly high BABIP against is sitting at .362. Entering Sunday, the mark was .380 second highest in baseball, now it is fourth highest in baseball.  Salazar’s career BABIP against is .309, which is above league average and tied to Salazar’s contact management issues. So, the .362 number is likely to normalize and indeed improve results. Salazar has had particularly adverse results on “flares and burners”:

Courtesy of Baseball Savant

Variance is certainly part of the problem for Salazar but his batted ball profile has changed as well in 2017. Salazar has a nearly 10% decline in ground ball rate, and for the first time since 2014 has a ground ball rate below 40% which impacts both his BABIP and more fly balls makes his HR/FB rate all the more influential.

Once the ground ball rate decline is isolated as a central cause of Salazar’s struggles, the root cause of the ground ball decline becomes a focal point of discovering his issue.  There is a big usage change in that Salazar is using his elite split-change at the highest rate of his career. He is using it more than any other offering and still getting outstanding results, which is where his rising strikeout rate can be explained.

Aside from that, there is not a significant usage change which can explain the ground ball decline. Rather, every single pitch of note be it four seam fastball, sinker, and changeup has seen drastic decline in ground ball percentage.  There is no significant movement reduction as Salazar is getting increased lateral movement on the four-seam and two-seam fastball.

Salazar has kept the change up down effectively, which speaks to his overall results with the offering. Perhaps, Salazar is not throwing enough pitches at the bottom of the strike zone with the change up but it is certainly satisfactory in all respects.

The four-seam location has not changed significantly in 2017 versus his career as displayed in the below GIF, but there are a few more offerings that are grooved in the middle of the plate.

However, the sinker location change is significant and appears to be at least one of Salazar’s problems.

Salazar’s command of the sinker is a major issue and when thrown over the plate up, the ground ball percentage will rapidly decline. Fixing Salazar’s outcomes in terms of type of contact allowed is anchored on his ability to improve the command of his sinker.

Sinker command appears to be a key piece in improving Salazar’s contact management sphere which will in all likelihood improve batted ball outcomes. Further, just as the sample grows and variance can be battled improved outcomes will occur. Salazar is merely having a strange season. He is inducing an elite number of swings outside the strike zone and whiffs outside the zone. Inside the zone? Even better, lowest zone contact allowed of his career.

Salazar certainly need to make a usage tweak here or there as well as improve his sinker command but in a larger sense patience is key with the talented right handed pitcher. Returning to the premise Salazar has 484 really good big league innings and 47 poor big league innings 2017.

Bet on the 47 being the fluke.

  1. xFIP negates home run rate from FIP, so it is encouraging if one believes that home run rate falls more under the random variety. []
  2. insane when one considers it was already elite []
  3. Batting average on balls in play []

  • Slippery Cripple

    That baseball savant graph (or is it a chart?) completes me. Good write up. Hopefully my man Danny will start converting some of those flares into fly outs.

  • jpftribe

    Great column Snarky. Was looking at Salazar’s FG numbers during the game yesterday. Perplexing indeed.

    His mix of pitches this year has changed pretty dramatically. His two seamer usage is 2x his career average and close to that for his change. So the first question is why the new selection approach? The only reasonable supporting stat I could find was movement. His pitch movement is at all time highs.

    The results have not been pretty. All of his fastballs are getting pounded, his slider is his most effective pitch (.164 BA) and he struggles throwing it for a strike (less than 50%). He throws his curve about as often as the slider.

    His change has more movement, but he’s gone from a 3-1 strike/ball ratio to 2-1. And hitters are swinging at it less and missing more out of the zone. But contact rate in the zone is the highest it’s been since his rookie season.

    One thing that kind of stood out to me was digging below the covers on his velocity. His averages look pretty good, but when you look at the min/max spreads, they are the tightest he’s ever been in his career and peak velo is down across the board.

    To me, the BABIP is a symptom of the problem and it’s not just going to regress to norm. As you point out, his flyball rate and ratio to HR is outta sight on his fastball.

    I’d really like to understand the Indians thoughts on pitch selection. Tito gives non-descript answers on Danny as compared to Bauer, when they’ve been pretty frank.

    To me, he just seems like a No 3-4 pitcher, with limited pitches, trying to get more movement on what he has, at the expense of velo and control. Hitters are sitting on his offspeed stuff and timing fastballs. Sometimes they miss, but when they don’t, see ya.

  • jpftribe

    Two things strike me looking at that chart:
    1. We need CF defense badly.
    2. There’s a whole bunch of green dots missing to the right of the legend.

  • mgbode

    One further note on 2s location being up. Check out Bauer — he also has had no qualms about locating the 2s up and has had some issues with it getting hit. I’m wondering if having a high sinker was a working theory the team had that is not working out as well as hoped.

  • Slippery Cripple

    Yeah… the Lonnie Center field Experience hasn’t impressed me.

  • mgbode

    I’m a big Chisenhall fan, but I think even he knows he’s not best there (though not like anyone else on the roster is ripping it away). Not enough speed & instincts (i.e. muscle memory formed from repetitions) still a work-in-progress.

  • jpftribe

    I dunno, hard to use Trevor as an example. Bauer has had no qualms about locating any of his pitches up, if he thinks he can slot it into a perfect location, and they’ve been on him for that for 2 years now.

    For me, I think that the slider is key for Salazar. Without a high quality breaking pitch, he’ll never be better than a 4. It changes the dynamic on everything else if he snaps it through the zone.

  • mgbode

    That’s fair.

  • jpftribe

    Yes, yes. Says something that only Zimmer can beat him out of there.

  • Chris

    Jensen Lewis disapproves of your data-based conclusions

  • mgbode

    He who shall not be named

  • Chris
  • mgbode

    Put me back in the water already!!!!

  • Mike Hattery

    Enjoyed the detail of this comment. Definitely intrigued by the velocity band argument.

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  • therudedude

    Don’t worry Cleveland fans so the Indians got their asss kicked which ended their season. It’s not a big deal you still have the football Browns to root for. Maybe this is the year the Browns win the super bowl. Like they say in that lotto commericial, “Hey you never know”. ROFL