No Cleveland Indians team of my lifetime compares with what this Tribe team could become in 2017. The hyperbolic statement was my initial reaction to the Indians first three-game sweep of an opponent to start a season since 1952.1 While the current set of players has much more to prove before they can rightfully stake their prowess against the 1994 and 1995 ballclubs, the combination of starting pitching, bullpen, defense, and hitting has created a team who can morph as the situation dictates.
On Wednesday, a three-run gaffe in the fifth inning meant the Tribe needed runs and lots of them. Trailing by two against the closer of the Texas Rangers in the ninth inning, the floodgates opened. Yandy Diaz and Tyler Naquin singled. Abraham Almonte and Carlos Santana walked. So, Francisco Lindor stepped to the plate with the bases loaded and quickly plated four of the five runs scored as the Indians won, 9-6, after Bryan Shaw set the Rangers down in the bottom half of the frame 1-2-3.2
The other big news of the night was the return of Danny Salazar. After missing most of the second half in 2016, he had shown a renewed propensity for striking out batters throughout Spring Training. But, it is difficult to discern reality from mirage in the desert games. Salazar left no room for doubting against the Rangers as he struck out nine in less than six innings pitched.
Salazar’s overall line for the game was not impressive (5.2 IP, 5 R, 4 ER, 5 H, 4 BB, 9 SO, 1 HR), but two of the four earned runs were due to poor scorekeeping. In the fifth inning, Salazar rightfully ended the inning with any damage being done when he induced a ground ball from Shin-Soo Choo to Lindor. Lindor turned to complete the last out to second base, but Jose Ramirez did not cover the bag. After losing the race to second to Joey Gallo, Lindor fired a bullet towards first base to attempt to achieve the final out there, but Edwin Encarnacion was not ready to receive it as it flew past his glove and into the camera bay. Two runs scored on that play alone with Choo scoring on the next batter. How any of those three runs were considered earned is as much of a mystery as why Delino Deshields thought he could catch up to Salazar’s fastball up out of the zone (first batter and first strikeout of the game).
2016 Profile of Salazar
Before his arm started giving him issues in June, Salazar had a specific profile that matched up with how he had garnered success previously as well. His blazing 96 mile per hour four-seam fastball was his bread and butter, and Salazar threw it 50% of the time. He mixed in a two-seam sinker, and occasional slider or curveball to throw hitters off the scent of the pitch he wanted to throw; his closing split-change (25% whiff rate).
Game 3 Salazar
The chart above breaks the previously held profile of Salazar. Of the 102 pitches he threw, only two of them were four-seam fastballs (with increased velocity of 98 miles per hour). Instead, Salazar relied on an almost even split between his 96 mile per hour sinker and 87 mile per hour change.
On the home run given up to Nomar Mazara in the first inning, Salazar seemed to miss his location as he threw a sinker that stayed up in the zone over the middle of the plate and was punished for it. However, Salazar did not shy away from throwing the sinker throughout all quadrants. He was not afraid to throw his change everywhere either though he attempted to keep his curveball and slider off the plate.
For the game, Salazar registered an impressive 21 whiffs. 10 off his sinker (19.2% whiff rate), nine off his change (21.4%), one off his fourseamer (50%), and another off his curve (33%).
Salazar finished Wednesday with 14 three true outcomes (nine strikeouts, four walks, one home run). His outing was reminiscent of his 2016 performances in that way though he did so through a new pitching repertoire. Whether the adjustment is temporary or permanent is to be determined. For now, we’ll just keep watching.