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Danny Salazar: High Floor, Higher Ceiling?

This may be the third consecutive year which I have written this article about Danny Salazar, granted the data in support is usually strong or at least interesting but Salazar is just an incredibly enticing talent who requires consideration. Unfortunately, due to Salazar's ceiling, it is easy to be distracted from what he has already become: a legitimate Major League starter.

In 162 big league innings, Salazar has posted a 3.89 ERA, which is backed up by a 3.41 FIP and a 3.22 xFIP. This already equates to a really solid starting pitcher; at worst, a fourth starter. Somehow, people have concerns, and they display disappointment by suggesting a back end bullpen role.

The point is this: Danny Salazar's floor is a cheap, cost-controlled starter through 2020. The question for Salazar remains: Can he be a top two starter?

In order to examine this, its important to discuss with some depth his arsenal as well as his overarching skills.

Lets talk about Salazar's fastball with a few visuals mixed in along the way.

First, we can watch him blow it by the best hitter of his generation, Miguel Cabrera.

Courtesy Jeff Sullivan Fangraphs


The average velocity has remained somewhere north of holy crap this guy can chuck.

Fastball velo Salazar


Salazar's fastball velocity has never really been an issue. In fact, an overarching criticism surrounds the straightness of the fastball or overall lack of movement. It hasn't drawn great results as his four-seamer allows a wRC+ of 114. The relationship this has with his secondary offerings is important. This is because it is a quality pitch but due to a lack of a strong third offering to use against right handed hitters, Salazar leans too heavily on his fastball which negates its lethal upside.

This brings us to Danny Salazar's best offering the changeup, with movement typical of a splitter or split-change. For a quick reminder of how unspeakably disgusting it is, watch this:

Salazar Split


For every GIF displaying Salazar's nasty changeup, there are twenty undocumented changeups of equal or greater filth. Time to look at the statistical realities of the changeup.

As Salazar's second-most used pitch, other than the fastball in two big league seasons, opposing hitters have posted a wRC+ of 56, as well as a BB/K of .05. .05!

Opposing hitters swing-and-miss at the changeup over 25% of the time. Further, hitters chase the pitch outside of the strike zone over 50% of the time. Thus Salazar has plus control of a pitch that induces elite swing-and-miss rates as well as contact outside the zone, which is most likely to create bad or unproductive contact. The changeup makes Salazar practically unhittable for left-handed hitters. For a right handed starter to induce a .293 wOBA from left-handed hitters is outstanding (small sample criticism accepted).

Lastly is the slider, which is Danny's problem child. I won't show a flashy GIF because I don't like showing gopher balls. But ultimately, he just hasn't been able to harness the offering. I promise this is the last time I will cite wRC+, but with the slider, opposing hitters have dropped a wRC+ of 146.

The slider is the hurdle Danny Salazar must leap to make it from a solid major league starter with a 2 1/2 pitch mix to a front-line starter who can retire both righties and lefties. It is important to emphasize that with this current mix, Salazar remains a cheap, major league starter on a contending team. The last piece is merely what it takes to make the leap from rotation member to stud.

A few more quantitative and perhaps even qualitative things remain to be said surrounding Salazar in 2015. One of the really interesting pieces surrounding Salazar's BABIP issues, which have been dynamic, .343 in 2014, is his ability to induce infield fly balls.

Specifically popups, popups are to be considered strikeouts as 99% plus are converted into outs. The league average for popups is 11% and Salazar has posted a rate of 13.3%. The oddity remains that this should have a positive effect on his overall BABIP but his BABIP was horrendous.

Two things have been discovered to suppress BABIP first is an extreme groundball rate and second is an elevated IFFB% or popup rate. For instance I will list the top nine (all qualifiers above 13%) in IFFB% among qualifiers in 2014 and their respective BABIPS.

1. Jordan Zimmerman:  14.2% and .302

2. Chris Young: 14.1% and .238

3. Clayton Kershaw: 13.9% and .278

4. Kyle Gibson: 13.6% and .287

5. R.A. Dickey: 13.6% and .263

6. Jon Lester:13.6% and .299

7. Zack Greinke: 13.2% and .311

8. Chris Archer: 13.1% and .296

9. Hiroki Kuroda: 13% and .279

Then Salazar: 13.3% and .343!

This makes his 2014 BABIP an aberration/outlier. It is more likely to be sitting around .310 or less, substantively improving his expected performance.

One piece of this all is sure. With a K% of 27% and a Infield Fly Ball % of 13.3% (percentage out of total fly balls not total contact), Salazar is set to be a very solid rotation member, and is merely a slider away from being a front end guy.

Lastly, I will mention what many have mentioned, a more qualitative positive. Due to recovery from T.J. surgery as well as a more laid back developmental course in the minor leagues, Callaway mentioned that Salazar did not enter 2014 prepared for the season to start. A piece of preparation will be improving the slider, tightening the slider or adding a fourth pitch to work on during the season, which could be a curveball or something else.

All the pitch restraints and gloves have come off Salazar, who will be pushed by Callaway to be ready to open the season sharper than he has ever been. Salazar is ready to make the leap from good, a legitimate big league starter to anchor. Will it happen? I don't know but I do know he will always be electrifying and fun as hell to watch.
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