Danny Salazar‘s start against Chicago on Wednesday started out as one of the worst for the Tribe this season. Despite a generally weak line-up, his first nine batters faced hit two singles and a double while Salazar hit a batter and walked another, leading to two runs in the second inning. His fastball down the middle to Avasail Garcia in the 2nd was particularly ugly and he’s lucky it was only a ground rule double.
While you could say this pitch was a mistake pitch, there is a greater argument that Salazar didn’t have control of his fastball all night. The chart below shows every pitch he threw during his six innings (courtesy of Baseball Savant).
While he did throw quite a few fastballs with too much of the plate, he also threw a bunch of pitches so far above the strike zone that they weren’t useful even in setting up pitches later in the at bat. This chart doesn’t tell the whole story, however. Salazar realized his lack of command with the fastball in the first two innings and quickly changed strategy. Moving to a focus primarily on his change-up, he went on to strike out 11, 10 of which came after the White Sox got ahead 2-0 in the second.
The above chart shows Salazar’s pitch selection by inning. In the first, Salazar went almost exclusively with his four seam fastball and he continued with this trend in the second, but by the third he was throwing more than 50% change-ups and he continued to do so for the rest of the game. This change actually started immediately after the Matt Davidson, two run single.
Against Davidson in the second, Salazar threw four straight fast balls. All were 95 MPH and aside from one ball, all were within the same quadrant of the strike zone. After giving up two runs, he got Omar Narvaez to pop out on a first pitch change up, then after hitting Leurys Garcia with a two seem fastball, he struck out Tyler Saladino and his mustache by setting him up with four straight changes in a seven pitch at bat before coming back with a significantly slower, more controlled fastball. On the strike out, Roberto Perez was able to catch Garcia stealing as well for an inning ending double play.
Salazar’s next three strike outs would culminate with a change and after allowing two baserunners in the third, no Indians pitcher would allow another hit, walk or hit batter for the rest of the game (Salazar allowed one runner to reach on his own error).
This kind of change-up use for Salazar was completely unprecedented. Literally, here is the pitch selection for every game he’s ever pitched (from Brooks Baseball).
While Brooks refers to Salazar’s two seamer as a sinker, the fact is that it has always been his second most used pitch with the change being used less than 20% of the time previously throughout his career. Despite his avoidance, his change has always been a difference maker. This chart shows how often players swing and miss at his most used pitches.
And when they do make contact, batters have the hardest time hitting his change hard out of all his pitches.
While it wasn’t necessarily always the case, hitters have improved off his curve in each of the last four seasons while his change continues to become more impressive each year. While small sample size largely effects the numbers from 2017, in both 2015 and 2016 Salazar’s change was his best pitch to both avoid contact and induce weak contact. Obviously, this weapon would be useless without a good fastball and it’s arguable that his over use of the four seamer in the first two innings on Wednesday was the reason the Sox were so aggressive later in the game against his change.
If this was the case, however, it wouldn’t really make sense that he was able to strike out the last two batters he faced on five consecutive off-speed pitches after starting Garcia out with a fastball. Garcia K’d on an 82 MPH curve, then Davidson went down swinging on a change in the dirt. Even when the hitters must have been geared up for a pitch that he was throwing more than 50% of the time they couldn’t discern between that and his fast ball. Control of the fastball is paramount, but the effectiveness of the change showed, at least in this game, that it isn’t a necessity for success.
In a way, Salazar reminds me of CC Sabathia. When Sabathia was a rookie, he thought he could just blow everyone away. In 2002 (his second season and the first for which we have pitch usage numbers), he threw 70% fast balls and 23% curves with only 7% change-ups. It took some rough years, but Sabathia eventually learned and in his Cy Young season he threw just 60% fast balls and a career high 18.5% changes. He also switched from a curve to a slider, but the biggest piece of turning him from a thrower into a pitcher was his increased use of the change up. Sabathia’s 2008 season was arguably better than his 2007 (although it was split between two leagues so he didn’t get as much Cy Young love) and his success came with another drop in fastball use (career low 54%) and increase in change-up (20.8%).
This wasn’t the old man Sabathia we see now, but in his prime 27 year old CC. He was still throwing in the mid-90’s, but his most valuable weapon was a pitch 10 MPH slower. For Salazar, the same may be true. Both his fast ball and sinker/two seamer average around 95 MPH. His change has been steady at 86 for the past three seasons. If he can continue disguising one as the other effectively, he could finally see the kind of season we have been expecting from him and one as dramatic as the turnaround CC had from 2004 and 2005 to his seasons from 2006 through 2008.
The good news for the Indians is that Salazar started his career later and, while he is 27 now, still has four full seasons of team control left. CC had seven great seasons after moving on from being a fastball first pitcher before age caught up with him. Salazar has the same potential and, while it may be the oldest trick in the book of pitching, changing speeds is still extremely effective. With a solid slider to go along with his fast and slow, there’s no reason that this can’t be the season that Salazar gives the Indians three true aces and no reason he can’t continue to be successful for years to come.