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Looking at Danny Salazar's historical season

Salazar's ace-like debut a very uncommon occurrence

Looking at Danny Salazar's historical season
December 28, 2013
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Before the 2013 season, the last impact starting pitcher Cleveland's farm system produced was Roberto Hernandez -- then known as Fausto Carmona -- way back in 2007. Every elite-level starting pitcher since then -- Cliff LeeJustin MastersonUbaldo Jimenez, etc. -- was acquired from outside of the organization.

That all changed in 2013 when Danny Salazar burst onto the scene. What Salazar did in his 10 regular season starts was nothing short of amazing. The hard-throwing right-hander posted a 3.12 ERA, a 3.16 FIP, a 65:15 SO:BB, and 1.2 fWAR in just 52.0 innings, blowing away the competition in his first exposure to the major leagues.

Salazar's start in the playoffs could have gone better -- he only lasted four innings while allowing three runs -- but overall Salazar's 2013 was nothing but successful.

So what should we expect from Salazar in 2014?

With his relative youth -- Salazar turns 23 years old in January -- it is easy to expect Salazar to just continue improving heading into next year. Given the fact that the right-hander should throw a full season's worth of innings in 2014, his WAR and raw strikeouts numbers should improve quite a bit.

Still, some regression should be expected. Salazar dominated upon his callup, but he still only has 52 major-league innings under his belt. While Salazar looks the part and has all the raw stuff you could want out of a pitching prospect, he is far from established.

This uncertainty is represented in the various projection systems. Steamer and Oliver agree in projecting Salazar for an ERA and a FIP in the 3.40 range, though they disagree greatly on how many innings the right-hander will throw (173.0 for-Steamer, 96.0 for Oliver). ZiPS is significantly less bullish on Salazar, projecting him as slightly above-average with an ERA and a FIP around 3.70 in 153.0 innings.

Those inning counts are lower simply because Salazar did not throw many innings in the majors last year, or many innings in general (145.0 between the minors and the majors). As that was part of Cleveland's plan to build the right-hander back to full strength following Tommy John surgery in August 2010, assuming Salazar will throw a full slate of innings in 2014 is not that much of a leap.

You can never assume a pitcher will stay healthy, but as of right now, Salazar seems ready to take on a heavy workload in the upcoming season.

One issue for Salazar to pay attention to in 2014 is his home run rate. We all know the right-hander can pump high-90s fastballs past hitters, but major-league hitters have a tendency to catch up to such heat, especially when it is left up in the zone.

The clearest example of this problem came in the one-game playoff, when Tampa Bay's Delmon Young took Salazar deep on the first pitch of the third inning.

The interesting thing about Salazar's stats is that despite giving up a few more home runs than normal -- 13.7 percent of his fly balls left the park compared to 10.5 percent, which is average -- the right-hander's ERA still matched his peripherals. Even if Salazar cannot quite control giving up home runs, his elite SO:BB gives him a shot at still posting above-average ERAs.

Supporting such a low ERA with an equally low FIP at such a young age is not a common occurrence in the history of baseball. Since 1903, only six pitchers have posted between 1.0 and 1.5 fWAR with the ERA to match so early in their career in such little time.

The list:

Season

Name

Team

IP

K/9

BB/9

ERA

FIP

WAR

Yr. Pro

1958

Bill Monbouquette

Red Sox

54.1

4.97

3.31

3.31

3.43

1.0

1

1966

Steve Carlton

Cardinals

52.0

4.33

3.12

3.12

3.13

1.0

2 (Yr. 1: 25 IP)

1972

Steve Busby

Royals

40.0

6.98

1.80

1.58

1.77

1.3

1

1978

Rich Wortham

White Sox

59.0

3.81

3.51

3.05

3.13

1.2

1

1988

Erik Hanson

Mariners

41.2

7.78

2.59

3.24

3.22

1.0

1

1995

Kirk Rueter

Expos

47.1

5.32

1.71

3.23

3.38

1.0

3 (Yr. 1&2: 178 IP)

2013

Danny Salazar

Indians

52.0

11.25

2.60

3.12

3.16

1.2

1

An interesting list for sure. What we are more concerned about is what happened the next year. What happened the year after each of these six pitchers burst onto the scene?

The next list:

Season

Name

Team

IP

K/9

BB/9

ERA

FIP

WAR

Yr. Pro

1959

Bill Monbouquette

Red Sox

151.2

5.16

1.96

4.15

3.39

2.5

2

1967

Steve Carlton

Cardinals

193.0

7.83

2.89

2.98

2.47

4.8

3

1973

Steve Busby

Royals

238.1

6.57

3.97

4.23

3.48

4.4

2

1979

Rich Wortham

White Sox

204.0

5.25

4.41

4.90

4.42

2.0

2

1989

Erik Hanson

Mariners

113.1

5.96

2.54

3.18

3.22

2.4

2

1996

Kirk Rueter

Expos/Giants

102.0

4.06

2.38

3.97

4.65

0.8

4

What we have on our hands is a little bit of a mixed bag, as Monbouquette, Hanson, and Rueter did not throw full season's worth of innings. That is a massive concern with Salazar given his injury history and his relative lack of innings in the recent past.

But from a performance perspective? The only below-average pitcher by WAR of this group is Rueter, and even he could have pushed for an average season given more innings.

All of this backs up what the projections point to: having so much success as Salazar did points to being a really good pitcher and likely an even better season the next year.

As for the rest of Salazar's career, our comps give us essentially no help.

Name

Career fWAR

Bill Monbouquette

30.1

Steve Carlton

102.5

Steve Busby

17.1

Rich Wortham

3.7

Erik Hanson

32.0

Kirk Rueter

12.8

Carlton is a Hall of Famer and one of the greatest pitchers of all-time. Monbouquette and Hanson ended up having solid careers. Rueter had a long career, though his lack of strikeouts hurt his effectiveness, however pitching as long as he did is an accomplishment in itself. Busby tore his rotator cuff and never regained his early form. Wortham also never regained his early form, though it was because he lost the ability to throw strikes as opposed to an injury.

So basically anything can happen with a pitcher. Salazar could ride his elite, electric stuff to a Hall of Fame career like Carlton's. Or it could all be over from an injury like Busby's.

When trying to predict what will happen in 2014, the projections offer the best picture. It is still interesting to see how rare Salazar's achievement in his first 52.0 innings was. We cannot know what will happen -- much in the same way that a pitcher can become either Carlton or Busby -- but 2013 was a extraordinary year for Salazar and every Cleveland fan who witnessed it.

If you want to follow Jim on Twitter, he’s @JimPiascik. If you want to e-mail him, you can do so at jpiasci1@gmail.com. If you want to read his Master's thesis on college athletes and Twitter, you can do so here.

User Comments

Willie
December 28, 2013 - 8:38 PM EST
I would suggest if Trevor Bauer gets his mechanics figured out he could be on par with Salazar. Outside of Bauer, there is no one with that kind of talent. However, there are some intriguing arms in the system that might pan out...Cody Anderson, Dace Kime, Adam Plutko, Dylan Baker, Sean Brady, Shawn Morimando, Luis Lugo, Keiran Lovegrove, Mitch Brown, Leandro Linares - who we haven't seen pitch state side yet.
Jim
December 28, 2013 - 6:41 PM EST
There's noone with Salazar's elite stuff in the system that's going to be up soon, but there are some interesting names for sure. Cody Anderson is a MOR type that should be up by 2015, if not September, but Salazar is special. His HR rate will drop...once he figures out how to pitch to big leaguers...
ron vollmar
December 28, 2013 - 6:39 PM EST
Is there another one or two Danny Salazar types in the minor leagues?

If so, who are they and how far away?

I was reading one of the sources that was indicating some hitters that were do in 2017 and 2018, which is nice. I was hoping some key pitchers were 2015 and 2016.

Thanks for this nice article.
Jim Piascik
December 28, 2013 - 4:45 PM EST
Absolutely correct on the home run/fly ball observation. Salazar does need to work on working down in the zone more and not trying to blow his high heat by everybody -- major league hitters catch up to it more consistently than minor leaguers -- but on a whole that does regress.

Salazar's xFIP in 2013 was 2.75, meaning a normalized home run rate leaves Salazar with an ERA in the same range as AL Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer. If Salazar adjusts and keeps more balls in the park, seriously, the sky is the limit. His stuff makes him capable of being an ace, if he can control it a little more (and stay healthy).
JHGrimm
December 28, 2013 - 4:23 PM EST
Coupled with Danny Salazar's high rate of Home Runs surrendered in 2013, the video of the home run surrendered to Delmon Young induces a very visceral reaction, one that leads the reader to agree that Danny Salazar has legitimate Home Run problems.

However, if one takes a step back, one finds that the article may be a bit too quick to concede Salazar's high Home Run per Fly Ball ratio will continue, when there are several reasons to believe it will not. These reasons, respectively, are a lack of league-wide correlation, and Salazar's own minor-league numbers.

Generally speaking, there is only an extremely weak correlation between HR/FB ratios year 1 to HR/FB ratios year 2. If one were to compare Pitcher BABIP, widely agreed to be one of the more volatile statistics, from 2012 to 2013, one would find a much stronger base correlation (.198) than HR/FB ratios over the same sample and time period (.117). The statistic is, with very few exceptions (e.g.: Fausto Carmona/Roberto Hernandez), extremely random. Hence, it's very unlikely that Salazar's unusually high HR/FB ratio of 13.7% will not normalize to something more like league average 9.7%.

If, however, Salazar allowed a higher-than-average HR rate during his minor league career, then we might well have cause for concern. But looking at his minor league numbers since Tommy John, he allowed an astonishingly low HR/9 - his highest at any level since Tommy John was 0.61 at AAA 2013 - about half of his 1.21 HR/9 in the Majors. Looking both at his history and at the noise inherent in HR rates, it does seem premature to concede that he has Home Run trouble.

Not to say his ERA will improve in 2014 - he stranded an abnormally high number of batters in 2013, and I'd expect that to normalize in 2014. But factoring in a probable HR/FB regression, among other things, I think 2013 performance is what we can expect from Salazar going forward.

Regardless of the outcome, Salazar is a flamethrower with a genuinely horrifying split-change. His stuff is magnetic, and whenever the Aurora Dominicana is on the hill, there will be reason to tune in to the action at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario.
Robert
December 28, 2013 - 2:57 PM EST
Wonderful piece with good information Jim.

This is exactly why I am not as bullish as some others who are penciling in Salazar as the #2 starter behind Masterson in 2014.

To me, given his injury history, inexperience, and lack of innings thrown, he profiles best right now as a number five starter. I wouldn't be surprised to see him struggle at various times, probably spend some time on the DL, and even possibly require some more time at AAA.

Even though I hope to be pleasantly surprised, I predict that his second season will be a whole lot closer to Kirk Rueter than Steve Busby, and that he will go six wins, seven losses, and throw somewhere in the neighborhood of 110-120 innings with an era of around 4.20 to 4.50.

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