I’m not sure whether this is a good or bad sign, but the issues ailing Salazar are obvious. On one hand, since they’re easy to identify, the process to begin fixing things should be simple (and has probably already has begun). On the other hand, some of his issues are so blatantly obvious and seemingly avoidable that no major league pitcher should be struggling with these basic concepts.
Whether you choose to look at this with a glass half full or empty mindset, here are the three basic issues Salazar is dealing with so far this season.
He’s working too hard
127 pitchers have made at least three starts so far this season, and only 19 of them are averaging more pitches per plate appearance than Salazar.
Salazar is throwing an average of 4.09 pitchers to every batter he faces, which is the main reason he has yet to complete six innings of work this year.
For some pitchers, this is an issue with accuracy but that’s not really the case for Salazar. With him, it stems more from his predictable approach, which leads us to the next issue on our list.
The fastball fools no one
In 2013, opponents whiffed on 28.5 percent of Salazar’s fastballs at which they swung. In 2014, that number has plummeted to 19.7 percent.
Now to be fair to Salazar, a 19.7 percent whiff rate still ranks above the league average, but that’s to be expected of a guy who can approach 100 miles per hour on the radar gun. When compared to similar pitchers, however, Salazar’s numbers are disturbingly low.
Salazar currently ranks 29th out of 38 qualifying pitchers with a whiff rate of just 13.3 percent against fastballs 95 miles per hour or faster.
And among those same 38 pitchers, Salazar also ranks 29 in chase percentage, as hitters have swung at fastballs outside the zone just 22.2 percent of the time.
There’s no mystery to his approach
Salazar relies heavily on his fastball, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But if you’re going to throw the same pitch over and over again, you need to find other ways to mix it up. Outside of Craig Kimbrell, there just aren’t many pitchers who can get guys out when they know whats coming.
Salazar throws the fastball to right-handed batters 71.8 percent of the time, the eighth highest rate in the majors. And the heat map on the right shows the location of those pitches.
When major league hitters know exactly where to look for a pitch, it becomes easier to hit and it also becomes easier to lay off. They know Salazar isn’t going to challenge them low or inside, so there’s no point in focusing on that area of the plate. If a pitch does drop or sail inside, since they’re focused up and away, it’s easy to lay off.
The chart on the left shows the location of the fastballs right-handed batters have offered at from Salazar.
While they’ve chased a few pitches on the inside portion of the plate, he primarily only gets them to extend their zone up and slightly outside – which is consistent with where they are expecting his fastballs.
Since righties know whats coming, and where its coming, it shouldn’t surprise us to learn they’re batting .400 against Salazar’s fastball this season. And, amazingly, he’s recorded just three strikeouts with the pitch against righties.
Salazar takes a drastically different approach against lefties, changing the hitters’ eye level with an even mix of balls up in the zone and down around the knees. This has translated into success, as lefties are batting just .231 against his fastball and he’s generated a whiff rate of 27.1 percent (compared to 14.9 percent against righties).
It’s not unreasonable to think that Salazar can turn things around by simply mixing up his approach, but the fact that’s he entered the season with this plan of attack indicates that he may not be comfortable with anything else at this stage of his career.
Most of the pitchers with similar approaches in terms of percentage of fastballs and lack of location variety are young starters (Tony Cingrani, Jarred Cosart, Tanner Scheppers and Shelby Miller, for example). So while Salazar still has plenty of potential, he’s a long ways away from being a top of the rotation starter for the Tribe.