Tuesday last, Danny Salazar took to the raised mound at the center of the base-ball diamond for the first time in Spring 2014. While Salazar’s own performance was rather overshadowed by the much-discussed outing of Trevor Bauer, Salazar’s own performance was less-than-inspiring, inducing only three whiffs over the course of his 42-pitch outing, for a Swinging Strike rate of 7.1%, according to my own personal collection of spring training statistics. This should neither surprise anyone nor be cause for concern: spring training means little, and the first start of spring training means even less.
Yet one trait in particular was gripping in Danny Salazar’s outing against the Angels: he induces a great many foul balls. While Tuesday was only one spring training game, it was wholly reminiscent of his 2013 outings wherein his pitch counts ran extraordinarily high – not because he was walking batters, but because batters were making such frequent foul contact. In 2013, Salazar Foul-Per-Contact rate was 55.6% – substantially above the league average of 48%.
Foul contact rate, as illustrated by this well-aged article from 2008, is a fairly unequivocal good for pitchers. It correlates positively and (pun incoming) strikingly with K rates, and correlates negatively with all manner of ‘batting-against’ statistics. Foul rates correlate positively with positive pitching traits and negatively with negative pitching traits. If one is a major-league pitcher who both wishes to succeed and who has an abiding admiration for the aesthetics of ten-pitch at-bats, high foul rates are a way to combine these two, and to varying degrees normal, desires.
More remarkably, it’s true that Foul% also negatively correlates with HR/FB rate – meaning, in short, that given Salazar’s high foul rate, his HR/FB rate should have been average-or-below. In the particular case of Danny Salazar, this leaves one with decided optimism. By far the most prominent criticism of Danny Salazar in the aftermath of his 2013 campaign was that he had trouble with the long-ball, which is certainly true: his HR/FB rate was well above league average. However, HR/FB has been shown to be one of the least stable year-to-year statistics, so simply because HR/FB ratio is high one year, there’s rarely reason to believe it will be high the following year. In Salazar’s case, his extremely high Foul/Contact rate indicates that not only should his HR/FB rate be merely league-average going forwards, there’s reason for Cleveland fans to believe that his true talent level on HR/FB rates should actually be better than league average; in short, Salazar’s home run rate, so problematic in 2013, may turn out to be one of Salazar’s strengths in 2014.
The correlation between Foul% and HR/FB is a weak one, to be sure, but Foul% is the stat that correlates more strongly with HR/FB rate than any other. The idea that Danny Salazar has a home run problem, the idea that his fastball is too straight to not result in large amounts of home runs, is one that’s understandable: last year, after all, his fastball was straight, and he gave up many home runs. There’s little reason, however, to believe that his fastball was a causative factor in his home run rate. A pitcher is extraordinarily unlikely to throw fifty-two innings of transcendent baseball if he has a glaring, fatal flaw. The HR problem he supposedly exhibited in 2013, then, was very likely mere statistical noise.