Second Thoughts Game #133: Cleveland 6, Kansas City 1
It was a most peculiar night from Danny Salazar on Friday. His four-seam fastball was running at its fastest, running at an average velocity of 96.1 MPH. Yet while Salazar threw his fastball 60 times on the night, his four-seam induced only one whiff.
His primary swing and miss pitch on the night, inducing three whiffs in its four offerings, was Salazar's splitter. Salazar’s split-change is a pitch that is both fascinating and the owner of a well-worn trope. On one hand, the pitch itself is filthy. Thrown on the same trajectory as his fastball, the fastball falls 12 inches due to its ‘upward’ break, whereas his splitter will fall 32 inches. The reasons for this is as much due to a change in velocity as the change in rotation, but Salazar’s splitter is vicious and induces incredible whiffs.
Thanks to the Baseball Prospectus PITCHf/x leaderboard, one can look up the outcomes of individual pitches in individual years. In 2014, Salazar’s split-change has been one of the best splitters in the majors, inducing whiffs on 40.24% of swings – fifth-highest among the 26 pitchers who have thrown 100 or more splitters in 2014. One might reasonably object that, because Salazar’s control has eroded from 2013 to 2014, whiff-per-swing overrates Salazar’s pitches; one might continue that the rate of whiffs per swing presents a very limited purview of the pitch’s overall effectiveness. While true, this objection fails to note that the 53.25% swing rate on Salazar’s splitter is 10th among that same group of 26 pitchers; his swing rate is not the very highest, but Salazar’s splitter is above average in terms of inducing swings and one of the very best at inducing whiffs on those swings.
Moreover, of those pitchers who have a better whiff-per-swing rate on their splitter than does Salazar, only Masahiro Tanaka induces swings at a higher rate, thus rendering the possible counter-point moot. Even when compared to non-splitters, to all breaking balls, fastballs, and changes, Salazar's splitter is the 47th best pitch in terms of whiffs per swing.
In isolation, it's an effective pitch at missing bats, and doubly so when combined with a 95+ MPH heater. Of course, the fact that I described the splitter as 'fascinating' rather than 'an 80 grade changeup in full bloom' should foreshadow that whiff rates have not told the entire story; the pitch's downside is that when it does get hit, it has gotten hit extremely hard.
Among that same group, the batting average against the pitch was .262; given the number of whiffs that the pitch induces, an out pitch like Salazar's splitter would, one imagines, have an obscenely low Batting Average against. Indeed, the BABIP against the pitch was .348 before Friday's game. In isolation, BABIP might be interpreted as a symbol of poor luck or - regular readers will have heard this one before - the defense he plays in front of. At the same time, however, it's not just the Batting Average that's been inflated - the power has as well.
Among the aforementioned population of 26 pitchers, the slugging percentage against Salazar's own splitter was .524, 4th highest in the group and a worryingly high rate; subtracting his batting average from his slugging, however, and one acquires the Isolated Power (ISO) of the pitch; this is as near one can get to stripping away the effect of slapped singles to truly interrogate how hard the pitch is getting hit. Among the previously mentioned population of pitchers with splitters, Salazar's ISO against of .262 is third. To give some context for an ISO of .262, this ISO against sandwiches him immediately between Giancarlo Stanton (,262) and David Ortiz (.258). BABIP can, in isolation, be written off for pitchers.
However, in the case where a BABIP is high and one can prove that a pitch is getting hit hard. The above by no means definitively proved by the standards of early 20th century positivists, nor even the standards of 21st century positivists, that Salazar's splitter gets hit harder. If, granting the flaws in the argument, one assumes that ISO against *does* translate to getting hit harder, however, one could in turn conclude that the .348 BABIP on splitters is not simply an unlucky byproduct, but rather an effect from the same cause.
There are several possibilities for what that cause is - ranging from the ever-popular 'keep the ball down' to Salazar possibly tipping the change - and because I did not attend scout school and have not rigorously studied biomechanics, this analysis could not responsibly hazard a guess as to what that cause fundamentally is. However, if that problem ever is solved, it would result not only in an improved rate of power prevention but also an improved rate of batting average prevention.
To me, personally, pitchers are interesting when they are at the extremes of pitching performance (2014 Clayton Kershaw, 2013 Brett Myers) or when their profiles defy commonly-held precepts, embodying some fascinating statistical anomaly. Between Salazar, Carrasco, Bauer, Kluber, and House, every single member of this Indians rotation is extremely interesting.
John can be reached on Twitter at @JHGrimm. He can also be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Amen. That says it all. Let's have fun into October!