Danny Salazar was one of the trendiest sleepers heading into 2014. The Cleveland Indians starting pitcher was the 46th starter taken according to ESPN’s live draft results, ahead of more established starters such as Johnny Cueto, Francisco Liriano and A.J. Burnett.
After disappointing fantasy owners for nearly an entire month, Salazar finally lived up to his draft day value last Saturday when he held the San Francisco Giants to just one run over seven innings while scattering just five hits and one walk to go with eight strikeouts.
Chances are, if you’re a Salazar owner, you felt pretty good about the young Indians pitcher after his start in San Francisco. Chances are, whatever equity he gained with you after that start was lost after he faced the Chicago White Sox on Friday. Salazar was back to his early-season ways Friday night in Cleveland, allowing seven hits and three walks to go with three earned runs and six strikeouts over just five innings. Friday was the fifth time in six starts that he failed to make it through the sixth inning and it was also the fifth time in six starts he recorded a WHIP of 1.76 or greater.
What did Salazar do differently in San Francisco that allowed him to be so successful? What should we expect from him moving forward?
Whether or not Danny Salazar ends up having a successful 2014 is dependent on whether or not he can throw his fastball for strikes, especially early in counts. He did it beautifully in San Francisco and had tremendous success; he’s failed to do it in every other start and they’ve all been disasters.
Salazar’s fastball sets up everything. He throws his fastball just over 70 percent of the time (75.3 percent this season, 70.9 percent for his career) and off of that he works with a change-up that can be devastating and an average slider. Last season, he threw his fastball for a strike 30.82 percent of the time and hitters whiffed on the pitch 13.98 percent of the time.
In his first four starts of 2014, Salazar threw his fastball for a strike just 25.75 percent of the time and hitters swung-and-missed just 7.3 percent of the time. Last Saturday against the Giants, he threw his fastball for a strike 38.1 percent of the time and hitters whiffed on the pitch 19.05 percent of the time. Friday night he threw the fastball for a strike just 27.78 percent of the time and hitters had a whiff rate of just 12.5 percent.
Where Salazar is really struggling is early in the count. Last season he threw a first pitch strike to 67.3 percent of opposing hitters. Heading into his start Friday he was throwing a first pitch strike to just 59.7 percent of hitters and on Friday he threw a first pitch strike to just 32 percent of the White Sox he faced. Salazar has the 13th highest walk rate among starting pitchers with a 4.15 K/9 and that’s only going to get uglier if he continues to miss with his fastball, especially early in counts.
So what should we expect from Salazar moving forward?
Unfortunately it doesn’t look like he is going to live up to the pre-season hype. I expect his season to be filled with outings that mostly resemble what we saw Friday night: lots of strikeouts, lots of walks and an early exit.
Salazar still has great enough stuff that his ERA shouldn’t kill you but he’s not going to consistently pitch deep enough into games to fetch you a ton of wins; and in order to reap the benefits of his above-average K-rate you’re going to have to accept the brutal WHIP that comes with it.