Danny Salazar didn't even get a sniff of the fifth rotation spot coming out of spring training. It could be that, according to Salazar himself after a particularly gruesome start against Cincinnati, he was pitching like excrement. It wasn't all bad. Over 11 spring training innings, he struck out 15 batters. The excrement was the 5 HR he allowed. They punched Salazar's ticket to Columbus, leaving Josh Tomlin, Zack McAllister, and T.J. House to compete for the final two spots in the rotation.
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Salazar would make only one start in AAA before being recalled to replace Carlos Carrasco, who needed more time to recover from a batted ball to the face. Salazar dazzled, striking out 10 Twins over 6 innings and walking just 2. He's gone on to rack up 52 strikeouts over 37.2 innings. Over that time, he's gotten better with the free passes, too. He had a particularly brilliant three-game stretch where he didn't walk any while fanning 27.
Salazar more than holds his own in a rotation that boasts the reigning AL Cy Young winner, a physics prodigy with the game's deepest arsenal, and Carlos Carrasco, who's pretty good too. His walk and strikeout rates are the best on his team. In fact, they're among the best in the league. He trails only super-reliever Dellin Betances' gaudy 40.7 percent strikeout rate among pitchers with at least 20 innings.
Salazar works off his four-seam fastball, which can touch 100 mph but averages 96. His primary put-away pitch is the splitter, which he throws 87 mph for a 28.6 percent whiff rate. His slider is another swing-and-miss pitch (17.0 percent), which he throws less often and almost only to right-handed batters. This season, he also added a curve that Fangraphs' pitch grip guru Eno Sarris noted was harder than average with above-average drop (which is good).
Salazar has always had good stuff, and he seems finally to be putting it all together, boosting his strikeout rate and issuing fewer walks. What's keeping Danny Salazar from being the best pitcher on his team is the long ball. Unfortunately for him, that's a pretty big thing.
This spring, Salazar was demoted because his spring training opponents were treating his outings like extended batting practice. While he didn't allow a HR in his AAA start, he's allowed at least one in each of his 6 starts in the big leagues and two in his last start against the Rangers. Of those seven HRs, five were crushed over 400 ft, and his average fly ball distance allowed (306 ft.) would rank 7th overall, though he's one fly ball shy of qualifying for the leaderboard.
All but one of the bombs he's allowed have come off his four-seam fastball. Salazar has gotten into trouble with the pitch when he leaves it center-cut and just below the belt (who knew?). Here's Eric Hosmer punishing Salazar for the first of two HRs the Royals' breakout star has hit off the righty this season.
Salazar struck out seven that night against a team that doesn't strike out very often. He scattered 6 hits across as many innings, and the only "free" base he allowed was the one Christian Colon had to take when Salazar tried to bury a pitch in Alcides Escobar's mouth. The pitch to Hosmer has been the story of Salazar's season. Filthy, filthy, filthy, meatball. Salazar has thrown 24 four seamers down the heart of the plate, and hitters haven't been missing, posting an 84 percent swing rate and 1.125 ISO. He may never be Corey Kluber's equal, but he could be close if only he would stop grooving so many fastballs.
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Matt Jackson is a featured writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacksontaigu.