NEW YORK -- Danny Salazar quickly shuffled down the dugout steps and picked up a baseball that was resting on the visitors' bench at Fenway Park. He spun the ball in his right hand and then positioned it just so, with "Major League Baseball" in bold type between his index and middle fingers.
"This is the grip I'm using this year," Salazar explained earlier this week.
Salazar was showing how he has slightly altered the way he holds his two-seam fastball, which has become a more reliable and relied-upon weapon for the starter this season. He then turned the ball a few degrees before pulling the same two fingers closer together and lining them along a curved section of red seams. This grip was the one Salazar used for the sinker a year ago.
It is subtle, but Salazar believes the change adds a little more deception when the ball spins from his fingertips. If a batter thinks it is his four-seamer, which stays straight rather than having last-second run, that millisecond's worth of confusion can lead to an errant swing, a foul ball or soft contact. Salazar has generated all of that with the help of the sinker this year, but the grip is only part of the explanation.
Salazar has more experience, a better understanding of pitching and increased confidence.
Maybe the grip plays a role in having more trust in the pitch.
"The key word is 'trust,'" Indians catcher Yan Gomes said. "We can tinker with it, we can do as much as we want with it, but if he doesn't trust to throw it in like a 2-0 or 1-0 count, or whenever he's behind, then he doesn't have the conviction, and I don't think it's going to work as well. He's starting to realize that even when he turns it over to throw a two-seamer, that thing is still coming out at 94, 95, 96 [mph].
"Those are tough pitches to hit. He's starting to realize that, in tough situations, when he does throw it, he tends to get a ground ball and get out of an inning with a couple less pitches."
In terms of what has been the biggest difference in Salazar's progress this year, Gomes hit the nail on the head
Last year, Salazar had a solid sophomore campaign for Cleveland, but the hard-throwing right-hander was extremely predictable when the batter was ahead in the count. In such counts, Salazar leaned on his four-seamer 84 percent of the time against lefties and 87 percent of the time against righties, according to BrooksBaseball.net. Essentially, when a hitter got ahead, he knew a four-seam fastball was coming.
This season, Salazar has altered things dramatically. When a batter has worked ahead in the count this year, the right-hander has featured the four-seamer 52 percent of the time against lefties and 69 percent against righties. Salazar has worked in the sinker 27 percent of the time against lefties and 13 percent against righties when behind in the count. He has also increased the use of his split-changeup in such counts this year, according to BrooksBaseball.
Overall, Salazar's four-seamer usage has dropped to 52.6 percent this year, compared to 70.1 percent last season. His two-seam sinker is now featured 15.6 percent of the time -- up from only 5.9 percent in 2014.
In short, Salazar is no longer as predictable.
"Obviously, he relies a lot on his four-seamer, so that's the pitch that people see the most," Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway said. "That's something that's in their heads. They're trained when they're facing him that, the majority of the time, they're seeing something that's pretty true and pretty straight. If he throws the two-seamer, but they're thinking four-seamer, it moves a little bit and he gets some weak contact."
A good example of Salazar's two-seam usage this year came in the fifth inning against the Tigers on June 23. Behind, 2-0, against Detroit's Anthony Gose, Salazar fired a two-seamer that hit the intended spot with some late bite, helping the pitcher get back into a more favorable count.
Gif: CLE Danny Salazar pitch vs. Tigers on June 23 082015
Last year, Salazar's command of the two-seamer was not as precise. One example of his growth with the pitch since last season can be found in a sinker to White Sox catcher Adrian Nieto on May 2 a year ago. With the catcher set up outside, the hard-throwing Indians starter fired a two-seamer that strayed too far inside for a ball.
Gif: CLE Salazar two seamer 2
The next example came against the Twins on May 7 last year. This was more along the lines of how Salazar has featured the pitch this season, but the two-seamer was flatter and the command was not as sharp.
Gif: CLE Salazar two seamer
What has happened in an overall sense is that Salazar has started to evolve into a starter capable of pitching to contact, while also featuring the kind of overpowering stuff that makes him an elite strikeout artist, too. While batters hit .471 (16-for-34) in at-bats that ended with his sinker last year, they have posted only a .232 (22-for-95) average this year against the pitch through 22 starts. Likewise, Salazar has enjoyed better results with his split-change (.323 in 2014, compared to .179 in '15), according to FanGraphs.com.
Salazar's strikeout rate has actually increased this season (10.1 strikeouts per nine innings) when compared to a year ago (9.8 per nine innings), and his walk rate has stayed relatively the same. The biggest change has been a steep drop in the pitcher's hit rate. Salazar has yielded only 6.9 hits per nine innings in 2015, following a 9.6 rate last season.
All of that has added up to an increased ground-ball percentage (up 10.1 percent over 2014) and a higher soft-contact rate (up 5.9 percent over '14), according to FanGraphs.
"It's been really important," Salazar said of his two-seamer. "I never used it a lot like I'm doing it right now, but it's working. I think I'm going to kep throwing it, because it's been really good. I'm getting a lot of ground balls, and it's because of that, because of the two-seam."
With the altered approach, Salazar has turned in a 3.16 ERA with 156 strikeouts and a .210 opponents' batting average in 139 2/3 innings this season.
"I think he feels more confident," Callaway said. "And more comfortable."
Did tinkering with the grip help unlock all of that for Salazar?
"Hey, if he thinks that's working," Gomes said with a chuckle, "then we might as well keep doing it."
Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Major League Bastian, follow him on Twitter @MLBastian and listen to his podcast.