Danny Salazar’s New Approach

The man with a 96 mph fastball and devastating changeup looks more himself these days. Danny Salazar is back up with the Indians, dealing, and was even name-checked by his General Manager as a deadline acquisition that should make their rotation hum this postseason. It could just be two good starts, but his pitching mix is radically changed. And though that change looks drastic, the driver of change might actually be more subtle.

Let’s look at the change in mix from 30,000 feet first. I’ve highlighted the thing you would have noticed first anyway.

Danny Salazar’s Pitching Mix by Period
Pitch Early Late
Fourseam 40.4% 53.3%
Sinker 18.2% 13.3%
Change 29.2% 17.8%
Slider 6.4% 11.7%
Curve 5.9% 3.9%
SOURCE: PitchInfo

Weird. He’s decided to throw less often his pitch that gets the most whiffs, is a ball least often, and is a homer less often than all of his pitches save the curve. He’s throwing his best pitch less often, and it seems to be working.

Maybe our assumption that the change is the best pitch is wrong. In the beer world, lighter styles like Pilsners and Lagers do poorly in the ratings, and if you don’t adjust for style, you’ll never have a top-shelf beer from those styles. It’s part of the reason I started BeerGraphs.

So let’s convert Salazar’s pitch by pitch outcomes to ones that are indexed to pitch type so that we can compare like to like. Let’s not just ogle his changeup because it’s a changeup.

Danny Salazar’s League-Indexed Pitching Mix
Pitch Type Whiffs+ GB%+
Fourseam 172 91
Sinker 103 118
Change 190 100
Slider 110 95
Curve 71 116
SOURCE: PitchInfo

Okay, turns out his changeup is still sexy time. But check out that four-seamer and then look above. He’s actually increased his four-seamer usage more than anything. And, in turn, stopped throwing his sinker so much.

The sinker looks decent, but remember that those are only decent outcomes for a 96 mph sinker, since velocity is related strongly to whiffs, and also to ground balls. Then consider this — the ball to strike ratio on his sinker was the worst among his pitches this year (1.72 balls per strike, compared to 1.11 for his four-seamer and a whopping 0.85 on the changeup). Given all the bad counts the sinker was getting him into, it’s no surprise that he’s throwing the sinker less.

It’s possible that Salazar is also tipping the sinker somehow. Across baseball, the swing rates on four-seamers vs two-seamers is virtually identical. For Salazar this year, batters have been swinging at his four-seamer nearly 20% more often. Maybe they can tell the pitch is coming from its spin, while the four-seamer and split-change have the same spin and get the most swings of his many pitches. The four-seamer and splitter belong together, tunnel or spin.

It’s not that he’s throwing non-competitive sinkers that are easy to lay off of. Check out where he’s throwing them to righty batters below. Those are prime places to drive a pitch, at least the top zone. In a related matter, the sinker is giving up more than twice as many homers per pitch than any of his other pitches.

And a word about his added four-seam usage. He’s focusing on throwing them up in the zone and is missing less often below that sliver of the zone that leads to pop-ups and whiffs. Here’s where he threw it early on:

Here’s where he’s throwing the four-seamer currently:

It’s a matter of inches, but they’re important inches of you look at the best places for batters to launch the ball with good exit velocity.

So, yeah, I guess in some ways it’s simple. He’s throwing fewer sinkers that do this:

And more four-seamers that do this:

So that he doesn’t need to go to the changeup as often, even though it does this:

There’s an underlying story of ‘throw your bad pitches less and your good pitches more’ here, but it’s also a little more complicated. Salazar can use his four-seamer for whiffs and called strikes, and it pairs well with his changeup, and it doesn’t give up homers like the sinker. It’s a return to basics for Salazar, a trust in his top-shelf stuff.

We hoped you liked reading Danny Salazar’s New Approach by Eno Sarris!

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With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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tribefan87
Member
tribefan87

This is purely from my own (admittedly limited) observations, but it seems to me that Salazar has been pounding the zone more since coming back. He’s not trying to necessarily paint corners and be uber precise; rather, he’s muscling that 98MPH heat and challenging players to hit it. To me, that has been all the difference, but throwing that sinker less seems to be helping too! Now, if we can get Clevinger back to challenging hitters with all his pitches like he was prior to (at the least) his BOS start, the Indians will start rattling off wins in bunches again.

EonADS
Member
EonADS

Probably also helps that his velocity is back. In some of his starts earlier in the year, his velo never crested 94. He was pitching like he was when he came back from his first injury in 2016, before he had to go back on the DL.

ksm3939
Member
ksm3939

Wait… so you’re telling me that Brian Shaw is not the sole reason the Indians aren’t getting wins in bunches? Preposterous!