Danny Salazar Made Massive Improvements Without Fanfare

Danny Salazar is Freddy Adu. Salazar is an inordinately talented pitcher with satisfactory big league production but the type of talent that leaves Indians fans always wanting more. Salazar posted a fourth consecutive season of 1.9+ WAR, and fifth straight 1+ WAR season.1 With a 4.28 ERA as the league continues to produce more and more power, Salazar posted a rock solid season. Among pitchers with at least 100 innings pitched, Salazar had the seventh best xFIP in Major League Baseball. Again using the 100 inning threshold, Salazar was fifth in all of Major League Baseball in K%-BB% at 23%, the five pitchers behind him being Luis Severino, Carlos Carrasco, Stephen Strasburg, Chris Archer, and Robbie Ray.

Of course, Salazar’s strikeout numbers have always been flashy but, this year, a number of his substantive flaws were improved upon. Time to look at the underlying improvement which should have Indians fans excited about his 2018 season.

First, the command/control improvement. Salazar lowered his walks per nine from 4.13 to 3.84. Further, Salazar had a massive K% increase of over five percent. For an already elite contact avoider, this is huge. Back to the command/control leap. Salazar, long criticized as a flaw, threw the second highest first pitch strike percentage of his career, and highest in a sample larger than 52 innings. Salazar who threw 53.9% first pitch strike last season cleared 60% in 2017 for the first time since 2013. When Salazar can consistently get ahead, his secondary offerings become all the more dominant, and Salazar all the more unhittable.

Beyond the control leap which anchors a decreasing walk rate, the command improvement anchored his improving contact management skills.

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Salazar did a couple of important things that are important to key in on in terms of contact management. First, Salazar posted the lowest hard hit percentage of his career, decreasing high expectancy contact. Second, while the league began to see a fly ball percentage spike, Salazar only allowed a 0.4% increase in fly balls allowed. The line drive percentage growth is certainly concerning. However, Salazar gave up the highest batting average on balls in play against of his Major League career despite his lowest hard hit percentage of his career. His BABIP was unsustainable based on the composition of contact and points to better performance.

Finally, the final flaw of Danny Salazar turned strength.  For the first few years of Salazar’s big league career, many felt he was a two pitch-pitcher who relied on the fastball/split-change combo. Granted, his fastball was a strong offering with elite velocity, and the split-change was perhaps the best in baseball grading out as a true plus pitch. The question for Salazar was whether he would develop the third pitch necessary to become a plus starter rather than a likely back end of the rotation/elite reliever type.

In 2017, the slider awoke, and Salazar’s mighty arsenal was complete. On a per pitch basis Salazar’s slider was the eighth most valuable slider among those with at least 100 innings. This paired with the seventh most valuable change up among the same constraint and Salazar all of the sudden has a Top 10 arsenal in baseball.

Salazar is a compelling project, a pitcher who has performed competently and at times brilliantly but without stability. In 2017, Salazar appeared to figure a number of problems out, getting ahead of hitters more frequently, and suddenly adding the third elite pitch he long needed. For now, the lone obstacle between Salazar and ace production is arm health.

  1. This is using fWAR which incorporates FIP []