Monday, August 1, 2011

In The Sabermetric Spotlight: Fernando Salas

The trade deadline has come and gone and there's so much to write about yet so little time in the day!

Perhaps the single biggest surprise out of the bullpen in 2011 has been Fernando Salas. After briefly pitching for the Cardinals in 2010, few expected him to be the closer at this point in the season. But no one could have predicted how he would take the roll and run with it. Because of this fantastic performance, this week we shine The Sabermetric Spotlight on...

Fernando Salas, RP St. Louis Cardinals

According to the ESPN Player Rater, Salas is the 5th ranked RP so far in 2011. That is pretty remarkable considering at the start of the season, Salas wasn't even gauranteed a spot on the team, let alone the closer's role. So what has allowed him to be so successful? Let's compare some of his numbers to the four closers ahead of him in the rankings.

His ERA and WHIP has been outstanding, and his strike-out rate is easy on the eyes (and blood pressure) as well. Of the Top 5 ranked Fantasy Relievers, Salas has the second highest strike-out rate, only to the otherworldly Craig Kimbrel. His SwStr% supports this data, and contributes to his low WHIP. With high SwStr% it's hard to make good contact, and therefore harder to get a hit. Compared to the others, his LD% is lower than average, and his average against is second only to Kimbrel.

As good as Salas has been, it's hard to believe that he can jump into the big leagues, be dominant and not experience any adversity. Much to the chagrin of myself and Cardinal fans everywhere, I will not lay out the cautionary statistics that might make you think twice before proclaiming Salas the next Mariano Rivera.

First of all, did you notice how dangerously high his fly ball rate is? This means that he's succeptible to the long ball (much like he was in his minor league career). Closers who have a relatively high Fly Ball rate are dangerous, as HR rate flucuate and are hard to predict. With 2 runners on and 2 outs, a scoreless 9th inning can quickly turn into a 3 ER blown save.

Another number that slightly worries me is the xFIP, as it's a little higher than I would like it to be. It's not an awful number, but it just doesn't scream elite closer. It is worth noting that he does have the lowest xFIP on the team, lower than Eduardo Sanchez and Mitchell Boggs.

What about pitch selection? Salas has a good fastball and a great slider, to go along with a changeup. How often does he throw these pitchers to lefties/righties? Take a look at these "Heat Charts" courtesy of This will make my next point much easier to convey.

Are you seeing what I'm seeing? The above two charts show the location of Salas' changeup and slider, with LHB and RHB side by side. Isn't it glaringly obvious that he's a two pitch pitcher, and it changes depending on which side of the plate you hit from? Now there are obvious answers to why Salas pitches this way, for example his slider is a strike-out pitch when thrown down and away to righties, and is prone to be left up and hit against lefties. You still have to add some variability in your pitches though, or big league hitters will figure you out. I'm not sure if this is Dave Duncan's doing, or something he is teaching Salas to do, but either way it does make me a little nervous.

Essentially, if your a lefty, you know your going to get a heavy dose of fastballs and changeups down and away. If you bat righty, you know your going to get fastballs and a slider down and away. Knowing the pitcher only has two pitches he'll throw you (more often than not) has to make your approach at the plate more likely to succeed.

What if he's not the only closer on the roster after the trade deadline? There is already speculation that with the addition of Edwin Jackson, Kyle McClellan will return to the pen and pitch in high leverage situations. Not to mention the addition of Octavio Dotel. It's very possible that Salas could share some save opportunities with others going forward, and probably has a very short leash.

All that being said, I don't see how a pitcher with this much talent won't succeed, especially since his pitching coach is a known genius. Dave Duncan will continue to groom Salas as he grows and matures I fully expect him to become a better pitcher. The hard part is predicting what is future value is. It's hard to say if he's the Cardinals closer of the future, especially with many experts claiming that to be Eduardo Sanchez. The problem with that prediction is that experience goes a long way, and right now, Salas has more experience in high leverage situations. I would expect Salas to enter next season as the Cardinals closer, with the expectation that he is a Top 15 fantasy closer, mabye higher.

Do you have a comment or question about this article? Do you have a suggestion for the next player to be featured In The Sabermetric Spotlight? Leave a comment below or call me out on Twitter @SillyLittleGame.

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