It might seem like a mistake that Cleveland right-hander Danny Salazar is the pitcher lined up for Wednesday's one-game wild card playoff. At first blush, a rookie with just 52 innings to his name seems like a casualty of a team expending everything to get through 162 games, and on top of the wild card standings. But this is no mistake. If there's anybody the Indians should want on the mound aside from Ubaldo Jimenez -- the man who shut down Minnesota on Sunday, earning Cleveland the right to host the wild card game -- it's Salazar, who has looked nothing short of dominant in his 10 starts at the major league level.
Salazar finished the regular season with a 3.12 ERA and a stunning 65 strikeouts against 15 walks over those 52 innings. He allowed over four runs in a start just twice. To boot, in the most recent one, Sept. 18 against Kansas City, at least two runs scored as a direct result of Yan Gomes failing to apply tags on easy plays at the plate (see the plays here and here). To understand how Salazar -- a 23-year-old who has never appeared on a top-100 prospects list -- got to this point, it's probably best to start with the three-digit number in the top left of this photo:
Salazar signed with the Indians at age 16 in 2006, out of the Dominican Republic. He didn't do much to separate himself in the low minors as a teenager, but his career has taken off since recovering from his 2010 Tommy John surgery. He dominated high Class A in 2012 with a 2.68 ERA, getting 53 strikeouts against 19 walks in 54 innings, his highest post-surgery inning total to that point.
In many cases, the rehabilitation programs associated with Tommy John surgery have been credited with velocity boosts for the pitchers who make it back successfully. Whether that's the case for Salazar or he merely grew into a live arm, 2012 was the season his velocity began to stand out. From the 2013 Baseball America Prospect Handbook:
"Though he hadn't pitched above low Class A, the Indians protected him on the 40-man roster after the 2011 season, then saw his stuff pick up significantly in 2012 amidst the best year of his career. As the season wore on and Salazar grew further removed from his surgery, his velocity took off. His fastball now sits at 94-97 mph and at times reaches 100."
According to the PITCHf/x data at BrooksBaseball.net, Salazar has hit at least 99 mph once in all 10 of his starts. His average fastball velocity has never been below 96 mph. Unsurprisingly, the result has been one of the most unhittable fastballs in the major leagues. Batters have whiffed on 29 percent of swings at Salazar's fastball, the best rate of any starting pitcher with 400 pitches thrown this year.
Salazar's ability to control the pitch may be more impressive. He has thrown 67.8 percent strikes with it thus far, a full three percentage points above the league average. Many fireballers find themselves undone by the superior discipline of major league hitters, but Salazar's control forces hitters to swing, rather than getting ahead in the count and waiting for a mistake.
A big, controlled fastball like Salazar's not only dominates on its own, but it augments every other pitch in the repertoire. Salazar's is small -- he goes almost exclusively fastball-changeup against left-handers and fastball-slider-changeup against right-handers. But he's thrown both pitches for strikes repeatedly -- an absurd 75.8 percent on the changeup, over 15 percentage points better than average, and 64 percent on the slider, slightly above average. Combine this with the constant threat of a 95-plus fastball for a called strike, and hitters are forced into a defensive approach.
Salazar grips his changeup like a splitter; some call it a split-change, similar to pitches thrown by Jimenez and Roy Halladay. Although it looks like a fastball out of the hand, the bottom falls out of it just before the plate. The result is a plethora of swinging strikes below the zone, particularly when the pitch is thrown directly after the straight fastball:
Salazar has induced 32 swinging strikes on his changeup in just 157 pitches, a rate of 22.3 percent, well above the league average. Of those 32 whiffs, 24 of them have come on the fastball, and 21 of those 24 have come below the typical strike zone. The changeup features great movement and has the best results of nearly any pitch in the major leagues, but much of its success must be attributed to the effectiveness of Salazar's fastball -- many of the swings-and-misses charted above were meant for a fastball that never came.
Wednesday's game will be unlike anything Salazar has ever encountered in his career. How a pitcher handles the pressure and stress of a playoff game -- and an elimination game at that -- is always a wild card, especially for somebody with just 52 innings of work in the majors and just 111 innings above Double A. But if there was ever a cure for nerves, I have to imagine it's a 100 mph fastball and a devastating split-change to pair with it. Salazar has the stuff to carry Cleveland over the Rays and into the American League Division Series on Wednesday, potentially the perfect cap to one of the most remarkable rookie performances of 2013.