A Tale of Two Halves, Starring Danny Salazar

It may be an understatement to claim that fantasy owners were excited about Danny Salazar heading into the season. And who could blame us? After undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2010, he returned with a new arm and rose swiftly through the Indians farm system. He then hinted at his vast potential during his 2013 MLB debut, as he struck out nearly 31% of batters faced, while displaying strong control. And that performance was backed by a sizzling 96 mph fastball, lethal changeup and good slider. It was enough to get us RotoGraphs rankers to place him 24th among starters, despite having just 52.0 Major League innings under his belt.

Unfortunately, things weren’t right from the get go. His fastball suddenly averaged just 93.7 mph and yet he was throwing it 76% of the time. Such frequent fastball usage is quite uncommon and strange given how much the velocity on it had declined. That 76% mark would have ranked third among qualified starters if he sustained it all year. Given the high frequency with which he threw a diminished fastball, it’s no surprise that his SwStk% fell from last year’s 14.6% to 10.6%. Of course, that’s still a highly impressive mark, but there was another problem that the swings and misses he was still able to induce couldn’t offset.

His previously excellent control went MIA. After posting a 67.3% F-Strike% last year that would have ranked seventh among qualified starters, he threw first pitch strikes just 57.1% of the time during his first eight starts to open 2014. His walk rate also jumped to 9.2% Check out his ball rate on his pitches from 2013 to pre-demotion 2014.

Pitch Type 2013 2014
Fourseam 32.1% 37.2%
Sinker 42.9% 44.2%
Slider 34.0% 45.5%
Split/Changeup 25.6% 33.3%

He threw a higher rate of balls on every single pitch. So hmmm, Salazar’s velocity is down and his control has left him. The knee-jerk reaction is to assume some sort of arm injury. And there was something, as he hit the DL in the minors with a triceps strain, though it’s hard to be sure whether this provided the full explanation. Instead, it seems like that oft-cited mechanical issue was to blame. In early September, August Fagerstrom described the mechanical issues Salazar suffered through to begin the year which likely did lead to the weaker results.

After those first eight starts, Salazar was surprisingly demoted to Triple-A. Surprising given how dominant he was last year, but not so much given his performance to date. Of course, maybe his results weren’t entirely his fault. His BABIP sat at a ridiculously inflated .369 and he allowed a 14.8% HR/FB rate. His 3.79 xFIP was significantly below the 5.53 ERA he posted. Given more starts, his ERA would have been sure to drop, perhaps precipitously.

Down at Triple-A, his control still failed to return. He walked 10.4% of opposing hitters, which was easily the highest mark he has posted at any minor league stop. But in spite of the mediocre Triple-A results, Salazar was eventually recalled, which marked the beginning of what turned out to be a return to dominance.

Over his 12 starts after his short minor league tour, Salazar continued pumping in fastballs, but it was now averaging over 95 mph again, a 1.4 mph increase from before his demotion. It helped boost his SwStk% to 11.3% and he was throwing first pitch strikes again, this time 61.4% of the time. Sure enough, he was throwing significantly more strikes. Check out his ball rate post-demotion compared to his first eight starts:

Pitch Type Pre-Demotion Post-Demotion
Fourseam 37.2% 35.1%
Sinker 44.2% 28.1%
Slider 45.5% 30.1%
Split/Changeup 33.3% 31.0%

Fewer balls on every pitch and his walk rate plummeted to 6.2%. He again suffered from a high BABIP due to the atrocious Indians defense, but fly balls were no longer flying out of the park, which kept his ERA only a bit higher than his xFIP.

What we saw from Salazar post-promotion is essentially what we expected all season. Overall, his changeup induced swinging strikes an insane 28% of the time, while both his fastball and slider remained pretty good weapons. His roller coaster season and unimpressive full season results are going to deflate his draft day cost. In the majority of leagues, he’s going to be a near lock to deliver a hefty profit.





Mike Podhorzer is the 2015 Fantasy Sports Writers Association Baseball Writer of the Year. He produces player projections using his own forecasting system and is the author of the eBook Projecting X 2.0: How to Forecast Baseball Player Performance, which teaches you how to project players yourself. His projections helped him win the inaugural 2013 Tout Wars mixed draft league. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikePodhorzer and contact him via email.

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