Mike Gianella released our starting pitcher rankings last week. With so many starting pitchers to rank and so few tiers, it's impossible not to be dissatisfied with how we ranked some starting pitchers. It's not a knock on Mike — just a fact of life. While some of the most intriguing comparisons may exist between teammates — Aaron Sanchez and Marcus Stroman, Aaron Nola and Jerad Eickhoff, Steven Matz and Matt Harvey, and Jake Odorizzi and Drew Smyly all reside within a handful of spots of each other, if not consecutively — I'll focus my attention elsewhere to two consecutive high-upside, relatively high-volatility arms in the third tier: Vincent Velasquez and Danny Salazar.
This is probably most important caveat for both pitchers, as neither has posted a clean bill of health since his debut. Salazar escaped mostly unscathed until this year — lapses in playing time were due mostly to his usage, not injury — and Velasquez was shut down during his sophomore campaign due to an injury scare that (fortunately) didn't require a second Tommy John surgery. With elbow woes in each of their pasts, you can't comfortably project either to pitch 180 innings, let alone 150. Thus, all assumptions henceforth assume equal playing time. Advantage: Draw
Let's get the least-pitcher-dependent statistic out of the way. While winning games requires run prevention, winning games additionally requires at least five innings of quality pitching but also run support. Sometimes, these prerequisites fail us without proper sequencing. Chasing wins can be a crapshoot. The distinction between Salazar and Velasquez, however, is stark: the Indians should win the American League Central while the Phillies are still clearly in rebuild mode. It's hard to imagine a scenario in which both are healthy and Velasquez wins more games. Advantage: Salazar
Velasquez struck out 0.0017% — yes, zero-point-zero-zero-one-seven percent — more hitters than Salazar did in 2016. The two were in a virtual dead heat. Yet Salazar's inefficiency — he threw roughly 0.1 more pitches per plate appearance and walked more than 2.5% more hitters — made him more valuable in a prorated context. Velasquez has never been neither great nor terrible with command through his young major-league career, but Salazar had never posted an egregiously bad walk rate (BB/9) until last year. Hitters swung less often at pitches outside the zone, but he also earned far fewer first-pitch strikes. It wouldn't be unreasonable to see him reverse the trend; it may be attributable to his elbow discomfort last year. If he bounces back to his typical solid-command self, his efficiency could actually drag him down in K/9 relative to Velasquez, who hasn't shown much efficacy in this regard. Ultimately, Salazar generates more swings and misses — his swinging strike rate in every season exceeds Velasquez's peak last season — making him a safe bet to strike out more hitters than VV. Advantage: Salazar, barely
If Velasquez faced 2014 Salazar, this would be a much closer contest. Salazar, however, has added more than 13 percentage points to his ground-ball rate (GB%) in the last two years, and it exceeded Velasquez's rate last year by almost an equal margin. Even though Progressive Field became something of a bandbox last year, Salazar hasn't been any less effective than Velasquez in keeping the ball in the park. The additional fly balls will only confound issues for VV. Advantage: Salazar, barely
This will ultimately come down whomever owns the superior walk rate. Neither is particularly adept at limiting hard contact, and their baserunner prevention metrics bear striking similarities, as aforementioned. Assuming Salazar doesn’t revert to normal — the most likely outcome, probably, although it's not this author's expectation — he will trail Velasquez a bit. The edge goes to Velasquez, but his grasp is tenuous. Advantage: Velasquez, barely
If you play in a league that rewards quality starts, Salazar and Velasquez could run neck and neck. They project to be equally (in)efficient once more with comparable ERAs and innings pitched. Given quality starts are primarily a function of those two, it doesn't create much of a distinction between either pitcher. Salazar's potential base-on-balls issues could negate his slight ERA advantage. They're largely indistinguishable in this regard. Advantage: Draw
Velasquez and Salazar actually make for pretty good comps until you reach their batted ball profiles. Salazar's increasing reliance on a filthy sinker — few earn as many ground balls and as many whiffs as his — has established for him a much safer ball-in-play profile. Velasquez's highly fly ball-oriented ways, on the other hand, are cause for alarm and could keep him from ever reaching his ceiling. A piece of unsolicited advice, Vinny: throw the curve more.
And the winner is… Danny Salazar.
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