“It was unbelievable,” he said. “So many people in the street. A lot of people recognized me and wanted to take my picture.”
Salazar may not have the status of LeBron James or Kyrie Irving, but with the Cavaliers' championship season complete, he’s now on center stage. Over the first three months of the season, Salazar has thrived -- his 2.23 ERA ranks second in the American League.
He's doing it with a pitch that by one measure ranks as the best in baseball.
Salazar’s changeup has been his signature pitch since he first stepped on a major league mound in 2013. Yes, he throws hard -- his average fastball velocity is 94.7 mph, seventh-highest among starting pitchers -- but his changeup is the difference-maker.
FanGraphs.com tracks a stat called pitch run value. The stat looks at every pitch a pitcher throws and assigns a point value based on how much it contributes to a win. Strikes and outs are good. Balls and baserunners are bad.
The total value can be broken down by pitch type. You can also look at it as a rate -- what the value is for every 100 times that pitch is thrown.
This season, Salazar’s changeup has saved 4.96 runs for every 100 times he's thrown it. No other pitch by a major league starter has a value that high in 2016 -- not Noah Syndergaard's 100-mph fastball, Clayton Kershaw's or Jake Arrieta's slider, or Corey Kluber's curveball (Kluber and Salazar are teammates).
Salazar's changeup, against which opponents are 8-for-68 this season, stands at the top of the list.
“I hadn’t seen that [stat], but that’s the way I see it,” Salazar said, laughing, though he also made it a point to pay respect to his peers. "Kershaw, Arrieta and Kluber -- I pay attention when they’re pitching. I like the way they attack hitters, the way they throw, mixing inside and outside pitches, and the way they behave on the mound.”
Nothing has rattled Salazar this season, not even a walk rate that has jumped to 4.2 per nine innings (it had never been higher than 2.9 in his previous three seasons). When you’ve allowed only 52 hits and six home runs in 80 2/3 innings and have the highest strikeout rate in the league (10.6 per nine innings), there are ways around trouble. Opponents are hitting .151 against him with runners in scoring position, the fourth-lowest mark in baseball.
“In the past, I think the [walk rate] would have bothered him a little bit, but he has enough confidence to get through that,” Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway said.
Salazar’s approach is simple. He tries to throw every pitch as hard as he can. His changeup averaged 84 mph two years ago; it now averages 86. And he can throw the pitch in a couple of different ways. His primary offering, which he grips with his pointer finger, drops down like a split-fingered fastball. He also has a version with a little loop and a curveball/slider element to it. He throws a more typical changeup, too, that looks like a fastball coming out of his hand but is 10 mph slower.
“My changeup is weird,” Salazar said. “It feels like a string and then it drops, or goes inside or outside. By throwing every pitch as if it’s the last pitch I throw, it’s helping me. I’m aggressive. It’s hard to hit. When I would just try to throw it for a strike at a low velocity, they’d do damage to it. My arm angle is the same for every pitch. It makes it tougher for the hitter to guess what I’m throwing.”
Salazar’s changeup has long neutralized any platoon advantage a left-handed hitter might have against him. But this season, he’s taken it to another level. Last year, left-handed hitters slugged .440 with 15 home runs against him. This season, they’re at .236 (best for any right-handed pitcher), with just one home run. Salazar has mixed in a cutter to go with his fastball, changeup and curveball, which also has helped bring those numbers down.
“He’s got a lot of weapons he can attack with,” Callaway said.
Salazar has room for growth. His elevated walk rate this season has raised his pitch count. Opponents are hitting .180 with two homers against his first 75 pitches in a game and .253 with four home runs after that. That’s made him, for the most part, a six-inning pitcher.
“[Improvement] is going to come down to him continuing to mature as a major league pitcher,” Callaway said, citing an example of how Salazar learned from a 2013 start in which he struck out Miguel Cabrera three times, but allowed a go-ahead home run in his fourth at-bat.
Salazar has a history of late-season improvement. He was sent down to the minor leagues in 2014 with a 5.53 ERA through eight starts, then returned to post a 3.50 ERA in his last 12 starts.
“It opened my eyes to see the reality,” Salazar said, describing the demotion as a turning point.
He had a 4.10 ERA in his first 15 starts last season and a 2.84 ERA in his last 15 starts.
"You could see this [season] coming last year," one major league scout said.
Salazar is close to being elite; maybe not quite to the level of basketball counterparts James or Irving, but he's in a good spot nonetheless.
“If he can get the walk rate down, he’s going to be really scary,” Callaway said. “He hasn’t pitched as well as he can, but he’s dominating the league.”