Danny Salazar high-fived Roberto Perez and flashed a smile last Thursday afternoon, having just pumped a 98-mph fastball past Oakland’s Ryon Healy for strike three, putting the finishing touch on an 8-0 Cleveland win.
That he recorded a strikeout was in itself unremarkable — he entered the day averaging 12.6 of them per nine innings. What made this different was that for the first time in his big-league career, he did so out of the bullpen in the regular season.
With the return of Corey Kluber from the disabled list and the solid performance of Mike Clevinger since coming up from Triple-A Columbus, Indians manager Terry Francona was forced to make a decision about his starting rotation, and Salazar was the odd man out.
"I don't think he has a ton of confidence going right now," Francona said. "OK. How do you build confidence? Your catch game, your work ethic, your paying attention to detail."
Through ten starts in 2017, Salazar has posted a 5.50 ERA and 4.70 FIP, yielding a .364 wOBA, .852 OPS, and 1.89 home runs per nine innings. Those numbers come on the heels of an injury-riddled second half of 2016 that saw the right-hander struggle to the tune of a 7.44 ERA, .395 wOBA, and .928 OPS while making only eight starts and missing nearly all of the postseason.
Pitchers struggle, of course, and often young power pitchers have more hiccups than most, but the dropoff for Salazar has been especially precipitous. A year ago at this time, he was a white-hot comet of destruction on the mound, about to go on a tear through the month of June, when he would notch a 1.91 ERA, limiting opponents to just a .566 OPS and .253 wOBA.
It was the cap to Salazar’s best run as a pro, seeing him carve up opposing hitters in the first half of 2016 to the tune of a .203/.290/.323 slash line, with a wOBA of .271, an ERA of 2.75, and a 27.6 percent strikeout rate. As a result, he earned his first All-Star selection.
So what has gone wrong and can it be fixed?
A look inside Salazar’s performance through the first two months of the season shows a loss of command, a shift in pitch selection, and a little bit of bad luck. The command issues are pretty self-explanatory: Salazar’s walk rate was the worst of his career at the major league level, as are his HR/9 and HR/FB rates. He’s fallen behind in the count often, and the opposition has made him pay, putting up a 1.063 OPS in those situations.
In addition to (or perhaps because of) the command issues, Salazar has changed the way he’s attacking hitters. A comparison of his pitch mix from the first half of last season to what he’s thrown since shows a decline in his usage of the four-seam fastball and an increased reliance on the changeup.
Here’s the pitch selection from the first half of 2016. Note how during his hot streak in June, he was throwing his four-seamer nearly two-thirds of the time.
And this chart shows the mix from the second half of 2016 and the first two months of 2017. Salazar’s four-seam usage dropped, his two-seamer has fluctuated a great deal, and his changeup has been used much more overall.
Looking into outcomes of these pitches, we can see a change in how aggressive hitters have been against Salazar. According to Brooks Baseball, there has been a dramatic increase in opposing batting averages, slugging percentages, and isolated power against both the four-seam and two-seam fastballs. The opposition is also swinging less at the changeup, keying in instead on the hard stuff.
This may explain why Salazar’s BABIP has gone through the roof. During the first half of 2016, the opposition had a batting average on balls in play of just .269, but that number rose to .416 in the second half, and it’s remained high at .364 in his ten starts this year. While some of that could just be bad luck, it’s clear big-league hitters have made an adjustment to Salazar, and the question now becomes whether he can adjust right back.
If any club can successfully undertake this reclamation project, it’s Cleveland, which had tremendous success with Carlos Carrasco in a similar situation in 2014. To his credit, Salazar seems to understand the opportunity he’s being given to hit the reset button, and might even be embracing it.
"My situation is not what I wanted, but it's something that maybe I needed," Salazar told Zack Meisel of Cleveland.com. "And I'm trying to take it in that way, a positive way. I think you just have to put in your mind that every pitch has a purpose. Every time you go out there, it's like you're throwing the ninth."
Perhaps it’s just coincidence that Salazar is in his age-27 season as he goes through this demotion. It was at the same age that Carrasco was sent to the bullpen, and the year that Kluber finally put everything together to stick in the major league rotation. Salazar undoubtedly has the stuff to be a key part of the Tribe’s starting five. We’ll see whether some time in the pen will strengthen his mental approach to the same level.
All data current through Saturday, June 3.
Ben Martens is a contributor to Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @wbennomartens.