Prospect analysts generally ranked Danny Salazar between the fourth and tenth best prospect in the Indians farm system heading into 2013. That was a big swing and a miss. Salazar broke out last season and posted gaudy strikeout totals at every stop along with a 96 mph heater and a stingy walk rate. In a ten start, 52 inning sample in the majors, he pitched to a 3.12 ERA and 2.75 xFIP, neither of which appears suspicious in any way. His season culminated in a playoff appearance against Alex Cobb of the Tampa Bay Rays. It should have been the kind of noisy breakout experienced by Stephen Strasburg, but it’s quite possible that Salazar will be undervalued in fantasy leagues this spring.
Salazar mostly worked with a three pitch mix in his brief big league audition. He showed a rare sinker in July and August, but he put the pitch away for the stretch run and playoffs. His primary repertoire consists of a four seam fastball, slider, and a splitter. The fastball is a special pitch, averaging between 96 and 97 mph. He generated whiffs over 14 percent of the time with the pitch. That is exceptionally elite. To the best of my knowledge (at least as far as my querying skills can take me), Salazar’s fastball featured the best whiff rate of any starter last season (cutoff 50 innings pitched).
For comparison’s sake, Yu Darvish had the highest overall whiff rate of qualified pitchers, but his fastball whiffed under 10 percent of batters. I believe Matt Harvey was second best in fastball whiff rate among starters, his heater clocked in with an 11.74 percent whiff rate. Impressive, but still over two percentage points less than Salazar. Moving to relievers, Craig Kimbrel‘s fastball slightly outperformed Salazar’s in garnering whiffs (14.77 percent), while I had to pull up Aroldis Chapman (15.84 percent) to find a pitcher who was substantially better than Salazar. Which is all to say that Salazar has a special fastball, the likes of which is rare among relievers, let alone starting pitchers.
Salazar approaches starting with the aggression of a reliever, which partially explains why he averaged only five innings per start. The rest of the explanation includes careful handling by the Indians due to a complex injury history that included Tommy John surgery in 2011. Salazar gets ahead with early fastballs, throwing a first pitch strike 67 percent of the time. That’s seven percent above league average for those keeping score at home. Against right-handed hitters, he uses his entire three pitch mix, but lefties generally only see the fastball and splitter.
Given his shallow repertoire and aggressive nature, there could be some scope for the league to “figure him out.” If he brings the same stuff to the table, he’ll still generally dominate the competition. People like to say that major league batters can hit any fastball if they know it’s coming, but that’s an oversimplification. His fastball may not generate whiffs 14 percent of the time next season, but we have every reason to expect it to remain among the best in baseball. The risk here is that his superlative fastball performance might stand for a bit of regression from historically excellent to good/great territory.
Sticking to the topic of his fastball, one red flag from last season was the high .254 ISO he allowed on the pitch. We’re obviously dealing with a small sample size, but Salazar also works up in the zone. As you’ll find in the heat map below, that’s where he finds his whiffs. Pitching up in the zone combined with the predictability of seeing a fastball in certain counts is a combination that could produce a high expected ISO for the pitch. In lay terms, he may allow more extra base hits and home runs than the hypothetical Joe Pitcher.
So basically, what we have with Salazar is an aggressive pitcher with a shallow repertoire, excellent primary pitch, two good supporting pitches, and the potential to put up elite fantasy numbers. That package comes with risks. He may not last very deep into games, which hurts his odds of capturing the win and his overall strikeout total. Also, whenever we see superlative performance, we should be prepared for regression. Lastly, he has a bit of an injury history ranging from major elbow surgery to a variety of minor maladies.
In some ways, Salazar’s late season dominance is reminiscent of Harvey’s audition in 2012. Fantasy owners paid an average of $9 to acquire Harvey last season and if Salazar is going for a similar rate, he’s a huge steal. This probably doesn’t need to be said, but while it’s perfectly reasonable to be bullish about Salazar in 2014, don’t go paying for 200 innings of the 2013 version.