Cleveland Indians: How Danny Salazar has Evolved to Staff Ace

It’s been a long time coming, but Danny Salazar is finally reaching his potential in 2016. His All-Star caliber performance has helped keep the Cleveland Indians in first place and the 26-year-old righty has proven to be one of the top pitchers in the game.

First, let’s start with the obvious. Salazar has been absolutely incredible this year. Through 15 starts, the Dominican Republic native has pitched to a 10-3 record with a minuscule 2.22 ERA, which is the sixth-best mark in the majors. His 4.0 rWAR (baseball-prospectus WAR) is second among pitchers, just 0.6 behind Clayton Kershaw.

Salazar didn’t win his 10th game until August last season and has won six straight decisions dating back to May 28. Additionally, he has surrendered just six home runs and 61 hits in 93.1 innings and boasts a 10.9 K/9 mark. The dude can flat-out pitch.

The one criticism one can offer Salazar this season is that he is walking batters at a high rate. His 4.9 BB/9 is the highest mark of his career. But that obviously has not slowed him down according to Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway, via ESPN.

“In the past, I think the [walk rate] would have bothered him a little bit, but he has enough confidence to get through that.”

There is evidence Salazar may have turned the corner, however, as the ace is coming off a seven-inning, no-walk performance in his latest start Wednesday night against the Atlanta Braves.

So how has Salazar jumped from middle-of-the-rotation starter to staff ace in 2016? There are several factors, but ESPN’s Mark Simon believes an improved changeup has been the key factor for Salazar’s success.

“This season, Salazar’s changeup has saved 4.96 runs for every 100 times he’s thrown it. No other pitch by a major league starter has a value that high in 2016 — not Noah Syndergaard‘s 100-mph fastball, Clayton Kershaw‘s or Jake Arrieta‘s slider, or Corey Kluber‘s curveball … Salazar’s changeup, against which opponents are 8-for-68 this season, stands at the top of the list.”

Salazar’s changeup has led to his strong K/9 mark and low home run total this season. Assuming he continues to throw the pitch with the same level of success he has been to this point, there’s no reason Salazar can’t solidify his reputation as one the best pitcher’s in the game.

When the season’s finished, we may be discussing whether or not Salazar deserves a Cy Young award. That discussion will have to wait, but for now, just sit back, relax and enjoy as Salazar continues to impress.