Explaining Danny Salazar

Maybe the most fun you can have with the Danny Salazar start is by just going over the fun facts. Salazar faced the White Sox Thursday, and he’d go up against 18 batters. Six of them hit the ball fair, and six of them ended up with hits. Two batters walked, meaning ten batters struck out, in just 3.2 innings. The following facts are also true: Salazar recorded zero non-strikeout outs, and the White Sox hit to a 1.000 BABIP. So how do you explain the one extra out? Adam Eaton was gunned down at second trying to turn a single into a double. In that way, Eaton was the spoiler.

It was a conspicuously ridiculous start. You don’t need anybody to tell you nothing like that had ever happened before — you can tell that immediately by looking at the numbers. Salazar finished with a 12.27 ERA and a 0.51 xFIP. In fairness, a year ago, Joe Blanton had a start with a 13.50 ERA and a 1.51 xFIP. Roy Halladay had a start with a 13.50 ERA and a 1.58 xFIP. Over the long run, you care more about the xFIP. In the shorter run, though, how does something like this happen? How did Danny Salazar steal from what I can only assume was the Rich Harden personal notebook?

The strikeouts — those are easy to explain. Salazar’s stuff is absurd. His repertoire’s one of the best, on raw velocity, diversity, and movement. Over 12 big-league starts, Salazar has struck out 31% of hitters, with Yu Darvish‘s contact rate. The White Sox feature a lineup with a bunch of aggressive hitters or otherwise strikeout-prone hitters. Obviously, you never expect ten of 18 hitters to whiff, but the less-weird part here is the strikeout part. Salazar’s going to get strikeouts. Here’s one of them:

Salazar_K_Eaton.gif.opt

When it’s located well, that changeup looks like a strike until it isn’t one, and there’s little a hitter can do, even if armed with a pretty good eye. There might be no more effective pitch in baseball than a well-located low change. It’s almost impossible to lay off, and then it’s also almost impossible to hit, and even if it is hit, it’s almost impossible to hit well. What Salazar has, here, is the component of a Cy Young arsenal.

But then there’s the matter of the six hits on six balls hit fair. There’s the matter of two of those hits leaving the yard. It can be difficult to reconcile unhittability with hittability, but Tim Lincecum has shown that such a bipolar identity can be sustained. And in the little picture, almost anything can happen. What on earth was Salazar doing? Let’s re-visit the six hits, in order. Starting with a Jose Abreu dinger:

salazarh1

Note the count: 2-and-2. The idea was to put Abreu away with a slider. The idea was not to put Abreu away with a slider literally right down the middle. I’m not sure this pitch could’ve been worse. Even had Salazar just turned around and thrown the ball over the outfield fence himself, that wouldn’t have counted as a home run. That would’ve counted as a really annoying and obnoxious delay of the game and Salazar would’ve been yelled at.

Now an Alexei Ramirez dinger:

salazarh2

The count: 2-and-2, again. An intended low changeup wound up being a changeup over the middle of the plate at the knees, and it just so happens that’s precisely where Ramirez’s power zone is located. When Ramirez goes yard, it’s by pulling pitches much like this one into left and left-center. Not many worse pitches Salazar could’ve thrown to Ramirez in that situation.

An Adrian Nieto single:

salazarh3

You know what’s almost always a good pitch? A splitter or a changeup, down. You know what’s very seldom a good pitch? A splitter or a changeup, up. Salazar elevated a change and it also caught too much of the outer third. Even Nieto couldn’t screw that one up.

Moving to an Adam Eaton single:

salazarh4

Once more, a 2-and-2 count. Salazar did basically the same thing with Eaton he’d just done with Ramirez. A good pitch would’ve been a change about nine inches closer to the ground. Instead this was a two-strike change over the middle at the knees, and Eaton drove home a run.

A Dayan Viciedo single:

salazarh5

Here’s the one hit that wasn’t on an obvious mistake. Salazar tried to get Viciedo to go away, and Viciedo did go away, punching a slider into right. The pitch was a little off the plate, but based on the catcher’s response, it was supposed to be further off the plate, because Viciedo will swing at almost anything, especially when behind in the count. This pitch could’ve been better, although it was overall okay.

Finally, an Alexei Ramirez double:

salazarh6

First-pitch fastball over the middle at the belt. It wasn’t even one of Salazar’s real good fastballs, leaving the hand around 93 miles per hour. As mentioned earlier, Ramirez’s real power zone is lower, where he’s able to get ahead and yank the ball down the line. But any big-league hitter is also capable of punishing a fastball that’s grooved and up, and Ramirez split the outfielders in right-center. Salazar’s attempt to get ahead instead effectively knocked him out of the game.

It was, for Danny Salazar, a start of extremes, as you’d rightfully infer from the box score. He threw stuff good enough to strike out more White Sox hitters than he didn’t strike out. He threw stuff bad enough to still allow an .813 slugging percentage. It was also a night of inefficiency, as Salazar’s ten strikeouts required 59 pitches. Only two of them lasted fewer than six pitches, and that’s something Salazar’s going to have to work on if he wants to be seen as more durable.

Most generally, here’s how a start like this happens: a pitcher throws mostly good pitches or bad pitches, with very little in between. Let’s go simplistic and figure there are three types of pitches:

  • Good
  • Okay
  • Bad

You can imagine pitching as a dartboard, with good pitches in the middle, then okay pitches around it, then bad pitches on the other side of the okay moat. What Salazar did was throw a lot of bulls-eyes while also on many occasions missing the board completely. It’s something that can happen over a sample of a game or two, but over time you’d expect a more even and gradual distribution. That’s the regression that Danny Salazar is going to see. He isn’t going to generate more reasonable results throwing the pitches he threw Thursday. He’s going to generate more reasonable results because he’ll throw fewer pitches at either extreme, throwing more in the okay range. So, the strikeouts will go down, but so will the slugging percentage, and Salazar should be less frustrating as a result.

Quite literally, on Thursday night Danny Salazar’s pitches were hit or miss. It was a game that, on the face of it, didn’t make sense. Upon closer inspection, one can see how it happened, and one can see how it could happen again, but it’s the okay pitches where baseball is normal, and it’s the okay pitches that ought to show up a hell of a lot more often.




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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


37 Responses to “Explaining Danny Salazar”

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  1. Ira says:

    What happened to that Yordano Ventura article?

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  2. awolgs says:

    I’ve anticipated this article since I read Salazar’s line last night. Thanks much, Jeff.

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  3. Glorpo says:

    Alex Cobb had a similar weird game against the Padres last year:

    23 TBF in 4.2 IP, 5 H, 2 BB, 1 HBP, 13 K, 2 ground outs

    Cobb struck out all 4 Padres he faced in the 3rd inning, yet gave up a run because Will Venable reached on a dropped strike 3, stole two bases and scored on a balk. I seem to remember there being something like 30+ foul balls off Cobb and IIRC he walked off to a standing ovation after being pulled in the 5th.

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  4. Well-Beered Englishman says:

    I watched this game and felt like I’d fallen into a different universe. Particularly so in the third inning, when, for a brief moment, he had still allowed nothing but strikeouts and home runs, and it seemed weirdly likely that he would continue in that vein.

    For ten at-bats, Salazar was completely unhittable. His stuff is ferocious; watching him pitch is a treat. But they weren’t consecutive, and in those other at-bats, I often wondered if I was still watching the same game.

    Hell of a lot of fun, in a seasickness-inducing way.

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  5. Bil Bo Baggins says:

    his pitches were literally hit or miss. good stuff Jeff

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  6. Fun fact: yesterday, in Triple-A, Brandon Maurer faced 13 batters in 3.1 innings and struck out nine of them.

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  7. LK says:

    “He isn’t going to generate more reasonable results throwing the pitches he threw Thursday.”

    I’m actually a little skeptical that this is true. There are a lot of “mistake” pitches that don’t end up getting hit, and a lot of decent pitches that do. Given that Salazar just had a start that was pretty unprecedented in MLB history, I think it’s likely that both the pitches he threw *and* the results on those piches were extremely unusual. I think even if he throws the same very unusual mix of pitches next time out, he’d probably end up with less rare results. Granted, they’d probably still be rare results, but I think they’d be less rare.

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    • Well, sure, yeah. Even that same identical game should be regressed. I didn’t express myself clearly enough.

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      • LK says:

        Makes sense. Wasn’t trying to call you out or anything. I think I just see that line of thinking a lot (not necessarily from you or the other writers at Fangraphs). A guy gives up a couple homers, and people say, well of course he did, they were meatballs, ignoring all the meatballs the other team’s pitcher threw that didn’t go for homers. Anyway, nice article about a truly ludicrous pitching performance.

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        • You’re absolutely right. Most meatballs don’t go a long way! Pitchers make a lot of mistakes, and they get away with the majority of them. Or so I’d estimate.

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  8. dude says:

    The extreme distribution of hits/runs vs Ks makes sense, given that his SwStr% was “only” 12.9%. I say “only” because, while 12.9% is pretty damn impressive, his 55.6% K% (!!!!) was probably a bit higher than it “should” have been compared to his SwStr% (about half of his swinging strikes were on the last pitch of an AB – maybe a bit skewed).

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  9. JohnnyFive says:

    Any insight into the rumor over on Razzball that Salazar may have been tipping his pitches?

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    • jfree says:

      Looks more to me like he was throwing predictable pitches instead. And doesn’t have the command over them like he needs to if he is going to be that predictable in what he pitches.

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  10. frivoflava29 says:

    Looking at contact this season, hitters have swung at less than 40% of his pitches and his z-contact is a ridiculous 95%. I mean… ridiculous. Positive regression please

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  11. derp says:

    Salazar has the stuff to get away with mistakes, it’s pretty much certain that last night was the absolutely worst example of random variance in baseball. As a Jay’s fan I see enough of that every time Morrow gets on the mound. We’ve all seen worse pitches hit by Miguel Cabrera getting dribbled back to the pitcher. His changeups move so much that even thrown in the heart of the plate the hitter still needs to compensate in order to not just roll over them.

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  12. Satoshi Nakamoto says:

    Does anyone think his slightly reduced velocity as well as his mistake pitches down the middle (hanging slurves or changeups that didn’t drop) were caused by the cold temperature? His game against the Twins was even colder.

    Salazar is from the Dominican Republic, a very warm country. Maybe this is a great buy low opportunity? And once the weather heats up his fastball will move back up to 98 and his change will drop sharper?

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  13. Satoshi Nakamoto says:

    Or is Salazar just not ready for the majors? He can strike people out but he’s so inefficient that he can’t go deep into games to qualify for wins and he lacks the control (even with warm weather) to avoid meatballs getting crushed?

    For fantasy I he might be a 1 category pitcher. Only strikeouts, and hurting your era/whip while not qualifying for wins.

    In this case Salazar owners should be selling him fast before his next implosion?

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  14. bigchuck says:

    I watched this game as did the “Well-Beered” gentleman. Salazar must get his off speed stuff working for him and eliminate those bad pitches you talk about. Too many fast balls way up high – these will make Gomes grow another 2 inches!

    Last year he had a nice off speed mover that broke to the left. It was a tough pitch to lay off. He needs to get that back. He threw one that resulted in a strike out. He threw others that bounced in front of the plate or went out of the park. His future looks great if he can get that off speed stuff under control. Time will tell us the tale.

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  15. esolney33 says:

    last night i came to grips with the fact that this guy and the danny salazar i thought i drafted are probably not the same person. the person i thought i drafted throws 96 with a plus slider and change, and 52% of those pitches find the zone. the guy pitching last night threw 94 with a change (the slider sleeps with the fishes), with 45% of his pitches in the zone. in other words, at this point danny salazar is ernesto frieri without a slider.

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    • Dean says:

      It was noted during the broadcast that he has lost some of the downward movement on his slurve and that Mickey Calloway has been working on that with him, having Salazar throw only curves during warmups.

      Maybe with warmer temps the velocity will increase and the movement on that pitch will improve. Both seem plausible.

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    • Robert Hombre says:

      “in other words, at this point danny salazar is ernesto frieri without a slider.”

      Well, that’s good. I was worried people were going to overreact to Salazar’s 14th-17th innings of 2014. Glad we avoided that.

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      • esolney33 says:

        i defy you, robert, to explain how, at this point in time, salazar is anything other than ernesto frieri without a slider.

        seriously – yes, maybe his 2.5 mph of lost velo returns; yes, maybe he brings back a third pitch, which is kind of important for most starters; and yes, maybe he starts locating his pitches again. all of that is possible. it is also possible that (a) he is not the same pitcher, and/or (b) he is injured. the indians were tight-lipped about his lack of activity this spring – maybe they really were “saving his bullets.” or, maybe there is a problem they have not disclosed.

        the point is – as of april 12, salazar very much is ernesto frieri w/out a slider, not in terms of results but in terms of key peripherals, and there are serious red flags about whether there is something fundamentally wrong with him.

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  16. Thomas says:

    Seriously, what would happen if he were to turn around and throw the ball over the fence, if the bases were empty? Just curious.

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  17. Billy Chapel says:

    Salazar wasn’t given enough work in the Spring. He’s still shaking off the rust and making mistakes that other pitchers would make in March.

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    • tribe fan in sf says:

      Thank you! You’re absolutely right and no one’s been mentioning this. Even on a popular Indians discussion board, they didn’t bring this up. But I think it’s the most important point. He’s at least 2 weeks behind most other starters. I think he didn’t get his first time on the mound in spring training until about 10 days in and they didn’t ever get him worked up to the # of innings per outing of anyone else in the rotation. I think the mistakes all come down to missing his location, and he’ll get better with that and I think it will happen pretty quickly. But will I be expecting him to go 7 innings every time out? No. He’s a strikeout pitcher and that takes a lot of pitches. Still – sure is fun to watch!

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      • Rally squirrel says:

        So this begs the question why would they not get him the work in ST? To save him for later in season but not be ready for the start? Maybe just being careful because of injury history but seems suspicious.

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  18. a eskpert says:

    Reminds me of Roy Halladay’s first start last year.

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  19. Johnston says:

    No one has a word to say about the pitch calling?

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  20. DC says:

    Great Article Jeff. Interesting that the slider and change that were his detriment seemed to be his K pitches as well.

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  21. Achengy says:

    He had a very reserved Spring Training. I’d say he’s still building up to the season. When he gets going he’s usually very efficient and looks like he’s just throwing darts.

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  22. Blockhead says:

    Brings back memories of Colby Lewis’ epic 2012 game against the Orioles:

    7 IP, 28 TBF, 5 H, 5 HR, 6 R, 12 K, 1 BB, .000 BABIP

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