On July 11, 2013, Danny Salazar threw 6 pretty spectacular innings at Progressive Field against the Blue Jays. In his first MLB start, he struck out seven, walked one, and gave up just one run on two hits, taking the win. That game began a stretch in which he was nearly unhittable, and I think it is fair to say the Indians would never have played in the Wild Card game without Salazar's performance during the second half of the season.
On May 15, 2014, Salazar again faced the Jays, this time in Toronto, but things did not go nearly as well. He lasted only four innings, giving up two runs on five hits and two walks, while striking out only three. That game concluded a stretch in which he was extremely hittable, and I think it is fair to say the Indians' playoff hopes looked dim with this version of Salazar pitching every fifth day.
The team agreed, and the next day the 24-year-old was sent down to Triple-A Columbus.
What was wrong?
"When he's making mistakes, he's paying for it," said Terry Francona at the time. "He's gotten away from locating his fastball down. His breaking ball has been inconsistent." Francona also noted that Salazar had moved away from using his stellar changeup.
The numbers back all of that up.
Paying for mistakes? In 2013 his HR/9 was high (1.21), but in 2014 it was insane (1.77). Last year batters couldn't touch his pitches(14.6% of his pitches created swinging strikes, batters made contact just 71.1% of the time), this year though, his swinging strikes dropped to 10.6%, and batters' contact rate rose to 76.0%.
Trouble locating pitches, particularly down in the zone? His zone% (pitches thrown in the strike zone) went from 52.3% last year to 46.0% this year, and a jump in his fly-ball rate (from 39.8% to 46.2%) certainly suggests some fastballs not staying down.
In 2013, his changeup was his most valuable pitch and he used it 17.4% of the time. In 2014 he used it just 13.6% of the time.
On top of all that, his pitches were each about 2 MPH slower this year. Not good.
How has he looked at Triple-A?
Sent down to the farm to work on all of that, Salazar's overall numbers at Columbus are not all that impressive: 4.50 ERA and 1.52 WHIP, 1.13 HR/9. The strikeouts remain great (11.63 K/9) but the walks, oh, the walks... 4.31 per 9 innings.
There are, however, encouraging signs. His HR/9 was 2.13 with the Clippers in May, then dropped to 1.16 in June, and is 0 so far in July. His ERA was 7.11 in May, but 3.47 in June and 3.75 in July. His FIP for each month: 5.57, 3.16, 2.25. His walks have been a problem in July (6.75 per 9 IP) but were great in June (2.31). Even his ground ball rate, which was just 31.8% in May, was up to 38.5% in July.
Small sample sizes apply to all of those numbers, but progress is good, and if you look at the last six weeks, Salazar has done well.
When an "established" big league pitcher goes down to Triple-A, it is not to get guys out and prove himself, it is to work on what is ailing him. Anecdotally, things are looking up in that regard.
Following a 10-1 win on June 30, the Columbus Dispatch quoted Clippers manager Chris Tremie saying, "He had really good off-speed pitches as well as locating his fastball. His changeup was really good, and what made it so good was how good his fastball was."
His catcher that day (now with the Indians) Roberto Perez, said, "...His slider - that's his third-best pitch - it was working today." After the same start, Cleveland pitching coach Mickey Callaway was optimistic, "I've seen his mechanics. He's pretty much where he was last year at the end of the year." He also noted that Salazar's velocity was good.
On July 10, Salazar pitched out of trouble a couple times and allowed only one run. Tremie noted that Danny's fastball "sat between 96 and 99 all day. He also had good command of his change-up."
Compare this to catcher Luke Carlin on Salazar after his second Triple-A start, back in May: "He was working on a few things today [with the pitching coach]." While the recent quotes talk about him looking like vintage Salazar, after that start pitching coach Tony Arnold told Carlin, "Those good fastballs today were his worst fastballs last year." The game recap in the Dispatch notes that he topped out at 96.
Summing it up
None of this is definitive. Looking good vs. Triple-A hitters is not the same as dominating in a Major League pennant race. The mound is still 60 feet, 6 inches away though, and 99 on a fastball is still 99 on a fastball. The decrease in home runs and walks while maintaining his strikeouts, the improved command of his changeup - all of it is good.
Sitting at 99 MPH, Salazar might have been able to simply blow away minor league hitters. But the combination of what the coaches are saying and what the numbers reveal suggests that the Danny Salazar we thought we had may be back, and ready to provide a second-half boost again, if the Indians give him the opportunity.