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”:
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.