Danny Salazar Looks To Build Upon Strong Finish In 2015


There are a lot of ways to look at Danny Salazar’s 2014 season. One can look and see a pitcher who was not used to pitching with full intensity in the early going and after some mechanical tweaks was back to his normal, flame throwing self. One could see a guy who was battling an arm injury early on, and once he took some time off he was able to come back healthy and with his best velocity. One could see a guy who was simply unlucky to give up as many hits as he did (.343 BABIP in 2014, .298 in 2013) and got better results once his luck started to turn around.

However, one could see a guy with an elevated fly ball rate (42.2% in 2014) and believe his 1.06 home runs allowed per nine innings, a mark that would have ranked 18th among starters had he qualified, was no fluke. One could see a guy who only throws two good pitches and struggles to turn a lineup over two or three times. One could simply see a guy who posted a 4.31 ERA and allowed more hits than innings pitched in September and think he was lucky to post the kind of number he did in August.

Of course, there’s a little bit of truth in both the good and the bad. Salazar is mostly a two-pitch pitcher at this point; his slider was worth -2.17 runs below average per 100 pitches according to Fangraphs Pitch F/X data and is just a show-me pitch at this point. If you’ve ever watched Salazar pitch (and I’m sure you have) you know his high fly ball rate is a product of Salazar often pitching up in the zone with his fastball. That style of pitching sets up his excellent split-change and leads to plenty of strikeouts. But it also leads to a lot of fly balls, and even though Salazar’s home run per fly ball rate was right about league average (10.0%) he still gave up plenty of long balls. If he experiences any poor luck at all when it comes home run per fly ball rate the results can get ugly.

But the good things about Salazar’s 2014 have elements of truth as well. Whether it was inexperience, the arm injury, or a mechanical flaw that caused Salazar to struggle before his midseason demotion, Salazar did increase his velocity and post a solid strikeout-to-walk ratio upon his return. His .343 BABIP is especially high for a pitcher who allows such a high rate of fly balls. The Indians’ outfield defense shoulders some of the blame, and while the Indians didn’t make any big defensive upgrades in the outfield, the high BABIP is not likely a reflection on Salazar’s ability.

So what can be expected from Salazar in 2015? Well for one thing he’s not a lock to crack the big league rotation out of spring training. Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer, and Carlos Carrasco are rotation locks, as is Gavin Floyd if he’s healthy. So Salazar will have to beat out T.J. House and Zach McAllister to win the final rotation spot.

But if he does, it makes sense to believe that his 2014 FIP (3.52) and xFIP (3.45) are the best indicators for the kind of number he’ll put up. Matching last season’s 3.43 strikeout-to-walk rate shouldn’t be an issue, though the 4.33 strikeout-to-walk ratio and 30.8% strikeout rate he posted in 2013 is probably out of the question. In theory the .343 BABIP should come down, but with the Indians bringing back the same quality of outfield defense in 2015 it’s far from a guarantee.

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The two biggest factors for Salazar in 2015 are his homerun-per-fly-ball rate and control. Salazar has little control over the former, but if a few more fly balls become outs instead of home runs it can go a long way towards boosting Salazar’s surface stats. Conversely, a few more flies leaving the yard will do the same in the opposite direction.

That’s why Salazar’s control takes on an even greater importance. Some of Salazar’s fly balls are going over the fence, so free passes will hurt him that much more. Not only that, but if Salazar can get ahead of hitters early in counts, it will better enable him to get to his split-change, which will help him really rack up the strikeouts.

But despite the big fastball and devastating split-change, it’s still premature to expect Salazar to take a big step towards becoming an ace. It would take a big skills, jump such as cutting down the walk rate or fly ball rate significantly, or some significant progress in the quality of his slider for that to happen. He’s is only 25, so a major still change can still come, but if Salazar does make the rotation, expect a solid mid-rotation quality performance.