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:


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:


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:


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:


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:


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:


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:


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.

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