Fagerstrom: Salazar looking like a real starter now

Salazar422By: August Fagerstrom / @AugustF_MLB

Take a moment to think about what you know of Danny Salazar, the pitcher. Maybe even close your eyes and visualize a typical Salazar pitch, if you will.

Did you see it? It was a fastball! Elevated, around 97 mph. Salazar throws hard, and he keeps it up in the zone. If there’s one thing you know about Salazar, it’s that. OK, visualize another pitch.

Fastball again! This one got a whiff! Salazar throws his fastball a whole bunch. For his career, three of every four pitches have been a fastball. He throws hard enough to where he gets a lot of swings-and-misses, but, boy, that’s a lot of fastballs. More than just about any starter in baseball, in fact. Onto another pitch.

Split-change! It started at the knees and ended in the dirt. The batter either chased, and whiffed, or didn’t, and it was a ball. You decide. This isn’t a real at-bat, you know. Let’s visualize one more Salazar pitch.

Another fastball! And, aw, shoot. This one went for a dinger. The hitter — let’s call him, I don’t know, say, Yelmon Doung — was sitting fastball all the way and parked it about halfway up the left field bleachers at Progressive Field. Salazar starts the next hitter off with a fastball because, hey, what can you do?

* * * * *

This is the Salazar we’ve come to know. The Salazar we’ve come to know has those two pitches, and not much else. There’s been a slider hanging around, too, but it’s a pitch that’s done more bad than good. It’s a pitch that’s seemingly stuck around only out of necessity, as Salazar needed something beyond just a four-seam fastball to get right-handed hitters out.

This isn’t meant to be a knock on Salazar as a pitcher and the innings he’s given the Indians. Since Salazar made his debut in 2010, he’s made 33 starts and thrown 181 innings — conveniently, about a full season’s worth of work — and has produced 3.3 Wins Above Replacement, according to FanGraphs. That’s quality, above-average production, and his 27.8 K% — sandwiched between Matt Harvey and Chris Sale on the leaderboard — makes him one of the more electric starters in baseball.

Yet, all this time, watching Salazar, it’s always felt like there’s been one thing missing that’s kept him from making that jump to the next level. Despite all the success, he’s still the same guy who got sent back to the minors for two months in May last year, and who opened there this season. Each time Salazar has struggled, cries have come out from many fans to move him to the bullpen. He’s better suited to be a late-inning reliever, people say. I’ve always been quick to reject this notion, as even back-end starters can provide teams more value than the most dominant late-inning relievers, but it’s easy to see where the critics were coming from.

Salazar is a guy who throws gas, and a guy who’s relied on his gas in a way you typically only see relievers do. That’s because he’s only ever had one other effective pitch — the split-change, a pitch that serves as a way of getting opposite-handed hitters out. His slider has never done its job of getting same-handed hitters out, and because of that, Salazar has ran some nasty reverse-platoon splits in his career. He’s held lefties to a dominant .642 OPS. Righties, on the other hand, have tagged Salazar for a .784 OPS.

It’s due to these struggles against righties that Salazar has had troubles turning lineups over and pitching deep into ballgames. It’s due to these struggles against righties that, despite the electric stuff and above-average results, one could imagine a future in bullpen for Salazar if he wasn’t able to figure out a way to retire same-handed hitters. Two-pitch pitchers just aren’t able to stick as starters in the Majors, more often than not. To date, Salazar’s been a starter getting by with a reliever’s arsenal, and, usually, that can only last for so long.

Now, take a look at this, from Wednesday night’s game:

Salazar.Gordon.CB

That’s a first-inning curveball, at 82mph, for a swinging strike to Alex Gordon. Ignore the fact that it isn’t against a same-handed hitter, which we’ve identified as the problem. It’s a Danny Salazar curveball, and that’s what’s important. And it looks pretty good.

In Salazar’s 2013 debut, he made 10 starts, and threw zero curveballs. In 2014, he made 20 starts, and threw three curveballs. In 2015, he’s made three starts, and thrown 23 curveballs. On Wednesday alone, he threw 14 — more than he’d thrown in his entire Major League career to date.

Immediately following that start, I tweeted this:

Screen Shot 2015-04-30 at 12.19.58 PM

This is something new for Salazar, and the early results are encouraging. The big thing here is that, if it proves to be effective, he’ll have the weapon to use against same-handed hitters that’s escaped him throughout his career. The other thing is that it gives hitters standing on either side of the plate a third speed to worry about. They all worry about the 95-mph heat. But both the split-change and the slider go around 87. Even the slider, serving as a third pitch, never served as a third speed. Hitters only had to worry about 95 or 87. Now they have to worry about 82.

I’d like to examine a particular sequence from an at-bat from the fifth inning of Wednesday night’s game, against Paulo Orlando. We’ll walk through it with added commentary from the man himself. Let’s begin.

Salazar.1.CB

Salazar starts Orlando off with an 81-mph curve, spotted perfectly below the knees. In Orlando’s first at-bat, he swung at a first pitch fastball, so Salazar decided to keep him off balance.

“His first at-bat, he was pretty aggressive with the fastball,” Salazar said. “He hit a line drive to center field and Michael Bourn caught it. So I knew he was looking for a fastball again. I put that in my mind and I tried to go either curveball or changeup down.”

Salazar.2.CB

Then, Salazar comes back with another curve, this time at 82 and again spotted perfectly. Going back-to-back curves is a new development, even in the midst of a new development.

“I think that’s the first time I’ve thrown back-to-back curveballs,” Salazar said. “I wanted to see if he wanted to swing at it again. And he did.”

Salazar.3.CB

After throwing consecutive curveballs for the first time in his Major League career, he comes back with yet another. This one, 83. This one, spotted perfectly, yet again. I asked Salazar whether going three in a row was more his idea, or more of catcher Roberto Perez’s.

“That was Roberto there,” Salazar said. “Sometimes, if they look bad with one pitch and you see that in the second pitch and they don’t make that adjustment, sometimes you want to try to do it again.”

Salazar.4.FB

Then, the heat. The heat’s still there. The heat will always be there. The interesting thing about the curveball development is that it helps set up the heat. Salazar hasn’t had that in the past. In the past, the heat set up the heat. Now, he’s got a new wrinkle to make his already-deadly heat even more lethal.

“I was trying to put him away there,” Salazar said. “I was ahead in the count and so maybe if he likes that pitch, he’ll swing. If he doesn’t, it’s a ball, and I can still come back and throw a change or a slider or maybe another curveball.”

Salazar.5.CH

And so that’s exactly what he did. After three curveballs at the knees at 82, he went with a fastball at the shoulders at 96, which is unfair. Even more unfair than that, is to follow up the high heat with an 87-mph splitter in the dirt. Typically, a splitter or changeup is more of a putaway pitch for opposite-handed hitters, so I asked Salazar about the decision to use it as a put-away pitch to a righty here.

“My changeup, it goes down — like straight down, not to the sides,” Salazar said. “So I feel comfortable throwing it to both righties and lefties, so that’s what I did.”

* * * * *

Now, granted, Salazar’s thrown 26 curveballs in his career, and I might have shown the best four he’s ever thrown in this one post. Over half of them have gone for balls, and there’s a wild pitch mixed in there too. It’s not like Danny Salazar suddenly has Adam Wainwright’s curveball. But he has one, and it’s improving. He’s trusting it more. Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway admitted that it’s being developed as a way to replace the slider as his weapon against right-handed batters, and that the slider had “flattened out” in recent years.

“This Spring Training, he really threw [the curve] a lot and I was like, ‘That looks pretty good,’ and now it’s better than it ever was before,” Callaway said. “Now, it’s a pretty good pitch. We graded it out and it’s a full grade better on PITCHf/x and things like that. We were like, ‘Hey, let’s keep on using it.'”

So, Danny Salazar has a curveball now, and it looks pretty good. And it’s getting better. The slider’s getting phased out, because the slider was always more of a placeholder pitch anyway. Its job was to get righties out, and it didn’t do that. Enter: curveball.

The curveball is there to help get righties out. The curveball is there to give hitters a third speed to worry about. The curveball is there to help Salazar turn lineups over. The curveball is what’s turning Danny Salazar from a starter with a reliever’s arsenal, into a real starting pitcher.

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