Danny Salazar Is Owning Batters for the Cleveland Indians
It was strange when it happened.
In 20 starts last year, Cleveland Indians starter Danny Salazar had himself a nice little campaign. He went 6-8 in 110 innings with a 4.25 ERA, a 3.52 Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) and an fWAR of 1.8. Not only that, he struck out 9.82 batters per nine innings (K/9) and walked just 2.86 batters per nine (BB/9), pretty good numbers for a 24-year-old getting his first consistent time in a big league rotation.
Fast forward to spring training this year when, strangely, Salazar was not selected to be a member of the team's Opening Day roster, and was instead sent to Triple-A to start the season. Two weeks later, the team realized they had done wrong and brought the kid back to the Majors, where he has been dominating Major League hitters ever since.
In his last start on Sunday, Salazar gave up a lead-off homer to Brian Dozier of the Minnesota Twins. He then retired the next 21 hitters in a row, pitching seven innings and giving up just the one hit, with 11 strikeouts and no walks. He is now 4-1 in five starts with a 3.27 ERA, a 2.94 FIP and is high atop the leaderboards in quite a few categories.
Danny Salazar, MLB ranks among qualified SP: K%: 1st BB%: 9th K-BB%: 1st SwStrk%: 1st Contact%: 1st WHIP: 6th FIP: 16th xFIP: 1st— August Fagerstrom (@AugustF_MLB) May 11, 2015
Best K-BB%'s among qualified starters Danny Salazar - 33.3% Clayton Kershaw - 28.2% Michael Pineda - 27.9% Max Scherzer - 25.9%— Beyond the Box Score (@BtBScore) May 10, 2015
The issue in the past with Salazar was always been his control. In his brief Major League career, he's had a walk rate of 6.8%, but all of a sudden this year, it's down to 3.9%. His K-BB ratio of 33.3% is far better than his career of 21.9%, and he's done all this while increasing his strikeout rate (K%), from a career 28.6% to a career high 37.2% this season, which leads all of baseball. And no one has been forcing more hitters to swing and miss so far this year, leading all qualified Major League starters with a swinging strike percentage (SwSt%) of 16.0%. Last year, Clayton Kershaw led all of baseball at 14.1%.
Not only that, he's instituted a new pitch that has helped him fool a few hitters so far this season, a curveball that has the ability to completely freeze the opposing batter. It accompanies a fastball that averages 95.5 mph, according to FanGraphs, along with an 86 mph changeup and a slider.
He's a major piece to a curious Cleveland rotation. They have the second-worst ERA in the American League at 4.75 -- only Boston's rotation is worse. But their FIP of 3.67 is actually fourth-best in the AL, indicating they've pitched much better than the results would have you believe. The entire rotation is averaging 9.60 K/9, highest in the AL, their K-BB% of 15.6% is second-best in the AL, but have given up a league high .344 batting average on balls in play (BABIP).
Their ace, reigning American League Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber, has a 5.04 ERA but a 3.20 FIP. Carlos Carrasco's ERA of 4.71 belies his FIP of 3.02. And Trevor Bauer's ERA 4.19 is also higher than his 3.80 FIP, but not quite as much as the other two starters mentioned.
But what you see is a rotation stacked with monster arms that miss a lot of bats. Once some of these peripherals even out a bit, the results should come in a big way for this Cleveland rotation.
As for Salazar, he appears to be an important part of the mix. The electric stuff has always been there, but the control was lacking. If he's managed to fix that part of his game, he should continue to be one of the most dominant pitchers in the American League this season.