It has to be hard to be Danny Salazar. You arrive in The Show and are excellent for most of your first three years and on many teams you would likely be heralded as the future ace. Instead, you end up on the Cleveland Indians at a time when another pitcher rises from anonymity to dominance, a once failed prospect and former head case rediscovers excellence, and a 24-year old former first round pick is just crazy and just tantalizingly talented enough that people can’t look away. Meanwhile, all you’re doing is throwing 96 mph darts and split changes that fall off tables and starting playoff games.
For all his excellence, Salazar has almost been an afterthought, the third, most distant head on a pitching Cerberus. That’s about to change, though. The 2016 season is going to be a pretty one for the Tribe rotation, but it’s about to be simply glorious for Danny Salazar.
When he entered the league, Salazar was a one-and-three-quarters to two pitch pitcher. He had that lightning bolt fastball and was able to back it up with a pretty decent split-change. It worked out well for him -- in 10 starts and 52 innings he struck out 30.8 percent of batters and logged a 3.12 ERA and 3.16 FIP. He passed every eye test in his short run and even got the start in the Indians’ Wild Card Playoff berth. He pitched alright, four innings with four strikeouts and three earned runs. Might have been nice to have a little offense, but life is too often a kick in the pants. Despite the loss, the images of his killer pitches were retained, and hope had arrived again to the wigwam.
The worry in the back of some minds was that with any young pitcher -- they see what works in their arsenal and stick with it, and end up a good reliever and nothing more. But Salazar didn’t, he has shown relatively steady growth since he came to the league, besides a hiccup in 2014 pushed him to Triple-A for a time. To be a real, long-term starter he was going to have to learn how to pitch, not just throw, even if what he threw was devastating.
The thing is, he’s done that. About the only thing he hasn’t done is pitch 200 innings, and he’s followed a nice steady increase in workload so as not to fall prey to the so-called Verducci Effect at some point. That milestone should be passed this season. The first thing he had to do was harness his stuff. Harness is an understatement -- he’s gotten simply silly with it.
The four-seam and split-change we all know; he got Miguel Cabrera with the change a couple times in one game a couple years back and it was awesome. Miggy homered in the ninth off another one that floated a bit too high, but some things can’t be stopped, especially forces of nature. Since that soul-crushing day, he’s gotten so much better with it. Whether it’s because he’s gotten better at locating his fastball, setting batters up with better sequencing or the pitch itself is just better, opposing batters’ wRC+ on the change-up has dropped from an already stellar 55 in 2013 to a mere 21 last season. The pitch had a 13.6 Runs Saved on Fangraphs’ Pitch Value on 2015. Zero is average on that scale, so for a frame of reference just know Clayton Kershaw’s curveball, one of the more devastating pitches in the league, rated a 16.3 in 2015, teammate Corey Kluber’s murderous slider/curve rated a 16.9, while Matt Harvey’s amazing fastball logged a 10.1. So it’s not as powerful as two of the best pitches in the league, but it’s damn effective. More simply, Salazar caused a swinging strike on 26.8 percent of offers at the pitch. He gets outs and makes fools of batters, like any change-up should.
The best pitch in baseball is that good change-up. Johan Santana rode one to dominance for several years. Jamie Moyer rode that and location until he turned into dust one day. Deception and trickery, the ability to fool the batter, will always be valued even in the current climate of power pitchers. You can do that with more than just the offspeed, though, and the last year or so Salazar has grown in that direction. To wit, the use of his fastball has dropped twenty points to 44 percent of pitches thrown, while the offspeed -- after a dip to 12 percent of those thrown in his off year in 2014 -- was back to 20 percent last year.
But it’s the sinker, a pitch with downward bite to play off the perceived "rising" of the fastball, that has come into form and was used nearly 15 percent of the time last year. It’s likely that which helped push his ground ball rate from 34.4 percent the previous two seasons to 43.4 percent last year. Now that he has actual athletes behind him that know how to hold a glove, perhaps he tries to lean on that a bit more in 2016, getting more ground balls, double plays and easy, short innings. Considering the book on him has to be rife with references to his offspeed and four-seamer, this is good news to deceive the hitters. The only worry would be his intentionally pitching to contact, but Salazar just doesn’t seem like that kind of pitcher.
He’s great at missing bats, but as noted with the ground ball rate jump, he’s getting better at inducing that Maddux-like weak contact. Not like Maddux, just Maddux-like. There’s a difference. He’s giving up less hard contact according to Brooks Baseball, with line drive rates on his fastball dropping from 27 to 25.6 percent, on the off-speed from 31.4 percent in 2014 to 22.6 ercent this past year, even on the sinker, from nearly 26 percent in 2014 to 18.9 percent last season. Like disco’s growth between 1974 and 1976, if these trends continue, ayyyyyyyyyyy. If that’s not clear, it means he will be even more killer.
What does a breakout really mean for Salazar? How can he really be that much better than a 3.45 ERA, 3.62 FIP, 25.8 percent strikeout rate and a ground ball rate in the mid-40’s? Well, I figure he’ll crack 200 innings this year, he’s been eased along enough. As that repertoire has developed he’s turning into the pitcher he needs to be rather than the thrower he has been, meaning that FIP and correspondingly that ERA will drop, I’m hoping a high sub-3 number for the ERA especially with guys like Lindor and Urshela stealing base hits. Most projection systems have him at a 3.2 to 3.5 WAR player, but I think big. He’s going to crack five wins and be some kind of dark, super shadowy horse for the Cy Young, and the conversation for best pitcher on the staff will be a bit more muddled. Being on the Indians kind of precludes household name-ness, but Danny Salazar is going to truly arrive in 2016 and the world will take notice.