Second Thoughts Game #128: Astros 2, Indians 3
Danny Salazar is short. Relative to the human male population, this is entirely false, but relative to the body of major league pitchers, it's quite true. Officially listed at 6'0", 190 lb., it's likely that he's 6 feet tall as much in the same sense as Johnny Manziel - perhaps it is accurate, but the teams have every reason to add an extra inch.
In terms of effectiveness, the primary criticism of shorter pitchers is the marginally decreased downward plane; because Salazar releases from a lower point, his pitch mix will categorically get fewer grounders than a hypothetical 6'5" Salazar with the exact same arsenal.
While his height alone is one strike against his ground ball induction, Salazar's fastball has taken (pun alert) heat for being too flat. Effectively, the same principle applies: for a given swing angle, the greater downhill plane induces more ground balls than does a lesser downhill plane. Salazar's fastball, being a fairly flat 'rising' fastball, falls in the latter category. Distinguishing Salazar is not necessarily the rise of his fastball; while (ignoring the effects of gravity) the upward break of Salazar's fastball is pronounced at 9.6 inches of upward break, this break is only 57th of the 178 pitchers who have thrown their four-seam 200 or more times in 2014 (per Baseball Prospectus's PITCHf/x leaderboards). In other words, the upward break is large, but not extreme.
Entirely extreme, however, is the rate with which he uses the four-seam. At 67.5%, Salazar's four-seam usage is third-highest among all pitchers with 70 or more innings pitched. So while Salazar's break on his four-seam fastball may not be extreme, the confluence of his height, his reliance on the four-seam, and the four-seam's rise all combine to form a pitcher profile that, one might posit, simply does not fit well as a ground ball pitcher.
At the same time, however, it's not clear that Salazar needs to be a ground ball pitcher, or that being a ground ball pitcher is the only way Salazar can thrive. Salazar has experienced struggles as a fly ball pitcher, to the point of his home run struggles of early 2014 meriting a demotion to AAA. Yet fly ball pitchers can be effective at contact management when they induce pop-ups at an outsized rate, since infield flies are guaranteed outs in much the same sense as strikeouts are guaranteed; it's possible the defense could botch either a K or IFFB, but such occurrences are extremely rare. What's more, year-to-year induction of infield fly balls as a percentage of fly balls (IF/FB) is a largely repeatable skill, unlike line drive rates or home run to fly ball (HR/FB) ratios.
Echoing the sentiments of a recent episode of FanGraphs Audio, short pitchers with flat fastballs - pitchers like Danny Salazar - frequently succeed not because they overcome their circumstances to induce groundballs, but because they embrace the flatter plane of delivery and induce pop-ups; in other words, unlike than the tall sinkerballers like Justin Masterson, who attempt to induce weak contact down, pitchers like Koji Uehara, whose fastball has an upward break of 11.4 inches against gravity over his career, attempt to induce weak contact upwards.
If Danny Salazar's approach is to attempt to embrace his profile and induce weak contact within the context of his rising fastball and short stature, he has done so quite effectively, bearing in mind that sample size of Salazar's 73.2 IP in 2014 does temper the certainty of future projections quite markedly. After Saturday's game, Salazar's IF/FB rate stood at 16.1%, second-highest among all pitchers with 70 or more innings pitched, behind only Cincinnati's Mat Latos. On the season, and particularly in the second half of the season, Salazar's fly ball rate is largely unchanged, but the outcomes on those fly balls have become extremely favorable; in turn, his fly ball tendencies have become an asset in run prevention rather than a liability. Not only has he enhanced the positives of his batted ball profile, he has also diminished the negatives; of his 39 fly balls induced since the all-star break, only two have gone for home runs, for a second-half HR/FB of 5.1%, well below the league average of 10% and far better than his first-half HR/FB of 14.8%.
What Cleveland has seen from Salazar since the all-star break is not Salazar at his very best; his in-game command remains far more concerning than his walk rate lets on - not a fatal flaw, but certainly limiting relative to his 2013 K/BB profile. Not everything is sunshine and roses on the Danny Salazar front, but while his K/BB numbers have always been good, the reason why he was sent to AAA was because of his inability to command secondary pitches leading to subpar contact management. The contact management has become quite solid, not because he's kept the ball on the ground - he continues to be predominantly a fly ball pitcher - but possibly because he's embraced the physics of his pitching profile, and his recent results appear to be reflecting that.
John can be reached on Twitter at @JHGrimm. He can also be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All of a sudden there are players coming from Columbus.
Could a team contend with rookies at SS and 3b and a 2nd year player at 2b?