What Can We Expect From Danny Salazar in the Second Half?

Danny Salazar makes his first start in the majors since May tonight, but can he return to last season's form?

Danny Salazar was supposed to be the Indians new ace. Brought up from Triple A midway through last season, Salazar had young phenom written all over him. He finished 2013 with a 3.12 ERA, 3.16 fielding independent pitching (FIP), 2.75 expected fielding independent (xFIP), and an astounding 11.25 strikeouts per nine innings (K/9). He struck out 30.8 percent of the batters he faced with a fastball that clocked over 95 miles per hour.

Coming into 2014, Salazar was supposed to fill the void that Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir left via free agency. With a blazing fastball, incredibly high strikeout numbers and overall great stuff, scouts talked of Salazar as being a young ace. But he started this season with a 5.53 ERA, 4.72 FIP and 3.83 xFIP and was quickly sent down to Triple A to work things out. Tonight, the Indians are bringing up Salazar back up to the majors to make his first start since May 15th. But what exactly can be expected from the young pheonom?

It's Not All Pretty for Salazar

In the majors, while Salazar was still striking out an astoundingly high numbers of batters (10.40 K/9, a number that would rank top 10 in Major League Baseball), he was also walking 3.76 per nine innings (BB/9), a number that would rank in the bottom 10 in the MLB.

More so, when Salazar wasn't striking out batters, they were getting on base. In 2013, opponents had a .224 batting average versus Salazar. In 2013 they had a .295 average. In addition, while opponent's had a .298 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) against Salazar in 2013, in 2014 his opponent BABIP was up to .369. Batters were also hitting more home runs off of him, 1.77 per nine innings, up from 2013 due to an increases in his fly ball percentage and HR/FB ratio.

Overall, Salazar was having some real problems as compared to 2013. He was throwing fewer first-pitch strikes, 57.1 percent down from 67.3 percent last year, and fewer batters were swinging at missing at his pitches, as his swinging strike percentage was down 10.6 percent from 14.6 percent last year. And batters were making contact with Salazar's pitches more often, with their contact percentage up five percent, from 71.1 percent in 2013, to 76.0 percent in 2014.

Salazar's fastball velocity was also down, from 96.2 MPH to 93.7 MPH. And his pitch values, for his fastball, slider and changeup, were all negative, whereas they had all been positive the year before. All in all, Salazar was pitching nothing like the the phenom from 2013, and the Indians sent him down to Triple A to figure his issues out.

But to make matters worse, in his first three starts in Triple A, it did not seem like Salazar was figuring things out. Salazar was 0-3 with a 7.11 ERA in Triple A in his first three starts, and was soon after put on the disabled list with a strained triceps muscle, proving that, indeed, something, more than just control or mechanics, was wrong.

Since coming off the disabled list, however, Salazar has pitched better. In seven starts, he has a 3.07 ERA and 3.33 FIP, with 11.41 K/9 and 4.39 BB/9. And over that seven start span, Salazar has allowed just 32 hits, an average of 4.57 per game, for an opponent batting average of .205.

While these numbers are in Triple A, Salazar does seem to be pitching better. Since his stint on the disabled list, while his walks per nine innings are up, he's leaving a greater percentage on base, 75.8 percent, compared to 69.9 percent in the majors, and his opponent batting average is way down. Salazar's also giving up fewer home runs, allowing just three in the seven-game span.

Some of his numbers from his stint in the MLB, also point toward an upwards progression towards the mean as well. A .369 BABIP is absolutely unsustainable, even with the league's worst fielding behind him. Salazar's BABIP should regress to the league average of around .300, decreasing his opponent batting average as well. His 69.9 percent left on base percentage is also a below the league average of 72 percent, and can be expected to increase as well.

If Salazar can continue to pitch as he has been in Triple A, there is some hope that he could return to his 2013 form. According to Paul Hoynes of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, even though Salazar is still walking too many, scouts are saying he's closer to his 2013 form than his 2014 form.

Of course he'll eventually have to cut down on the walks, but as Salazar continues to develop - he's only 24 - he should continue to improve his control.

In his first start back, Salazar faces the Twins, who rank in the bottom half of the American League in hitting, but are among the best at drawing walks with a 9.2 percent walk rate. If he can keep the walks to a minimum, Salazar could start the second half right, as the Twins are also in the bottom half of the MLB in strikeout percentage, striking out 21.6 percent of the time.

In terms of the rest of the season, Salazar may not pitch like an ace, but if he continues his improvements from Triple A, a decent performance can be expected. ZiPS projects Salazar to go 3-3 in nine starts (50 IP) with a 4.00 ERA, 3.71 FIP, 9.63 K/9 and 3.31 BB/9 the rest of the season, as his BABIP drops significantly and his left on base percentage increases to the league average. And with the Indians in dire need to starting pitching, with Justin Masterson struggling and now on the disabled list, anything Salazar can give them in the second half would be helpful.