Wednesday May 27th, 2015

Whenever we talk about pitchers, we love to talk about 'stuff.' Pitchers with stuff tantalize and climb to the top of rotations. Pitchers without a great deal of it end up filling out staffs or settling into a relatively ambiguous bullpen role. Guys with stuff get all the second chances they need, in the hopes that they one day harness that stuff and become a true ace. In the world of pitching, the siren song of stuff is impossible to resist. Every pitching coach is Odysseus, only they don’t have beeswax.

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Danny Salazar has never lacked stuff. When he forced his way to the majors in 2013 and helped push the Indians to their first playoff berth in six years, he brought with him an electrifying fastball-slider combo that he complemented with a splitter to help him keep lefties in check. (A quick aside: Some people call Salazar’s splitter a changeup. The effect is basically the same, but Pitch F/X codes it as a splitter, so we’re calling it a split here). In a 52-inning stint with the big league club, he posted a 3.12 ERA, 2.75 xFIP and 65 strikeouts, positioning himself to be the team’s ace of the future.

Against all odds, it turned out that he would need that aforementioned second chance. Salazar was so bad in the first half of the 2014 season that he earned himself a demotion to Triple-A Columbus for 11 starts. He simply couldn’t find the strike zone, and when he could he got hit hard. In the first half of last year, hitters slashed .295/.364/.521 against him. Basically, every hitter he saw was Mike Trout.

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When he returned after the All-Star break, he did so with the sort of command that had previously eluded him. No pitcher can succeed without fastball command; it is the bedrock upon which all pitching greatness is built. Fastball command is why Greg Maddux was the dominant pitcher of his era, despite a fastball that rarely, if ever, reached 90 mph. Suddenly, Salazar had that command. He cut his walk rate in the second half to 6.2% from 9.2% in the first half. That alone was behind his 3.50 ERA, 3.25 xFIP and 1.24 WHIP, all of which were significant improvements over his first-half numbers. He still had some distance to cover to put himself next to Corey Kluber at the top of the Indians’ rotation, but the bedrock was in place. This season, he has started to build on that solid ground.

After a spring training speed bump landed Salazar in Columbus, and not Cleveland, to start the season, he has looked every bit the frontline starter the organization believes him to be. Through seven starts and 43 2/3 innings, Salazar has a 3.50 ERA, 2.46 xFIP, 1.08 WHIP and 60 strikeouts against just nine walks. His strikeout rate is nearly 30% higher than his walk rate and would be the best in the majors if he had enough innings to qualify for such a statistic, which he soon will. Coincidentally enough, Kluber is the current leader.

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Last year at this time, Salazar had no clue where his fastball would go once he released it. This year, he’s essentially placing it in the catcher’s glove.

That’s a chart for all of Salazar’s fastballs thrown this season by zone. In short, he doesn’t miss, unless he’s missing with a purpose, which explains all those high fastballs, a go-to pitch for any pitcher ahead in the count. With that foundation, two of his secondary pitches have flourished this year. One, the splitter, is an offering he has always had, but has thrown more than ever, with spectacular results. The other, a curveball, is completely new to his repertoire this season. Both are responsible for taking him from a pitcher with a strong base for success to one who could be an ace for years to come.

Let’s start with the splitter, because it’s more integral to his success. Salazar is throwing the pitch 24% of the time this season, double what he did last year. It has a whiff rate of 29.5%, and has been strike three on 35 of his 60 strikeouts. Hitters have managed just a .136 batting average and .227 slugging percentage against the splitter. So, yeah, it’s a good pitch.

One reason it’s so effective is because Salazar will throw it in just about any situation. You already know it’s his best strikeout pitch. Here it is getting strike three against Brian Dozier, a righty with pop…

…and Joe Mauer, a lefty who makes a ton of contact.

However, he doesn’t just use it to get strike three. Here’s Salazar in a start against the Tigers back on April 24 using it in a get-me-over fashion to start an at-bat against Nick Castellanos. It wasn’t the best split he has ever thrown, but with Castellanos sitting fastball, it didn’t need to be to get Salazar ahead in the count.

Salazar will also go to it when he’s down in the count. He started against the Royals in Kansas City on May 5. He had a decent outing, allowing four runs on six hits in six innings, striking out seven and walking just one. Those numbers don’t jump off the page, but he was dominant after surrendering a three-run, first-inning homer to Eric Hosmer. In that at-bat, Hosmer drilled a 2–0 fastball to put the Royals in front. The second time Hosmer came to the plate, Salazar fell behind 3–1. This time, however, he went to the split.

After taking that for strike two, Hosmer struck out looking on a fastball. It’s hard to get any pitcher to take a strike three fastball in an even count. Salazar’s willingness to throw his splitter at any time makes that possible.

Salazar’s curve isn’t nearly as good or important as his splitter. He has thrown it 46 times, or 6.4% of his total pitches this year. Of those 46 curveballs, 24 have been balls, 10 have been taken strikes, five have been fouled off, four have been swinging strikes, and three have been put in play. Here it is in action.

Salazar gets more velocity on his curve than most pitchers, with his average curve checking in at 81.1 mph. As you can see from the above GIF, he also gets great movement on it when he doesn’t overthrow it. However, it’s real value is in giving him another ground-ball pitch. Salazar got in trouble with homers earlier in his career, and he’s still struggling in that regard this season, allowing seven in his 43 2/3 innings. On the plus side, his ground-ball rate, which was 34.4% for his career entering this season, is at 43.8% in 2015. The splitter does the heavy lifting there, as well, but the curveball carries its weight, relative to its general usage.

The stuff was a constant for Salazar. Last year, he learned fastball command. This season, he added a nasty out pitch, as well as another breaking ball to round out his repertoire. With all of those clubs in his bag, he appears on his way to being a frontline starter in the majors.

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