Salazar Stumbles But Indians Should Stay Course

1,435 days ago, a Cleveland Indians phenom took the mound against David Price. Only 52 innings of Major League experience detailed his young career, but small sample sizes could not contain the excitement level. Limited experience notwithstanding, he was the choice to toe the rubber in the Indians’ first playoff endeavor since the American League Championship debacle in Boston six years prior.

Danny Salazar was exciting, to say the least. After spending his first six years in the organization bouncing between low-A and rookie ball, he ferociously ascended the minor league ranks in 2012 and 2013, going from high-A to Major League action in a mere 15 months. Once landing in Cleveland in 2013, Salazar took off. He struck out 11.75 batters per nine innings over that 52 inning 2013. An ERA of 3.12 matched the peripherals. He produced at a 4.0 fWAR pace, and that merited the nod in the American League Wildcard showdown.

What has transpired in the last few years on the Danny Salazar front seems borderline improbable. Everything was roses. The Indians had a frontline starter for years to come, who could showcase the 97 mile per hour heater and then break a hitter with the devastating split changeup.

Injuries and battered confidence have combined to create a large obstacle preventing Salazar from becoming a consistent figure at the forefront of the rotation. Throughout the injuries, he has pitched well enough but sustained success has been elusive. On the opposite end of the sustained success, there have been fits of mediocrity breathing life into the notion that he might be best served as a bullpen arm in the long run.

Salazar did nothing to quell these concerns Tuesday night. While he touched 99 miles per hour on the gun, he looked to be visibly shaken and could not find the strike zone. As long as the health is there, as Salazar and Francona confirmed last night, the Indians are in a position where they can and should allow him to continue plugging away for the rest of September. Three to four innings in Game 4 of a playoff series is more important than low-tier leverage, sporadic playoff appearances.

The Tribe needs to resist the long-term inclination to plop him in a bullpen role, even if his arsenal seems well suited for it. Even if overall arm health might benefit from a long-term shift into fewer innings. The cost of what could be is too much, at this particular moment. The decision to move Salazar to the bullpen would be based on the hope that he could become an Andrew Miller-like entity. Even if he were to ascend to that level, however improbable, the ceiling is not high enough to mortgage his potential as a starting pitcher.

Brief aside: WFNY’s Mike Hattery tackled the difference in a team’s view on the risk mitigation from a health standpoint versus a player’s view in his first article for Fangraphs. Go check it out and WFNY will have more from Mike Hattery later today.

Andrew Miller’s peak relief season in 2016 featured 74.1 innings and 12 earned runs, translating to a 1.45 ERA. His ERA was mirrored well enough by a 2.16 FIP, creating 3.0 wins above replacement. Perhaps this is underselling his overall impact given the versatility of a dominant arm plugged into high leverage situations, but his value is ultimately capped by his appearance total.

Danny Salazar hurled 137.1 innings in 2016, nearly twice Miller’s total. While his effectiveness was soured by an elbow injury, he accounted for 2.6 wins above replacement (0.4 less than Miller) in an injury-shortened campaign. The hope with Salazar is that he can dial it in and produce 200 innings at pre-2016 all-star break pace. If that were to happen, four-to-five wins above replacement is not out of the question. With Cody Allen and Andrew Miller both on board for 2018, the bullpen need is not imminent. Beyond 2018, there are more questions about the back end of the Indians bullpen, but that bridge is best left uncrossed until then.

The Indians have a window of four more regular season starts to determine whether or not Salazar’s elbow is suited for the postseason roster. Throughout these starts, it will be important to monitor his velocity – fastball should average around 95 miles per hour – and command – around 50% of his pitches should be in the strike zone. If he can incorporate these two metrics with any shades of success and stay healthy through the end of the month, it’s hard to envision him not being an integral part of the playoff rotation.

  • jpftribe

    Yeah, I don’t know about that. Agree you continue to give him starts given the cushion they have in the division, but I think it’s a real disservice to Clevinger to go with the magic 8 ball Salazar has turned into. The comparisons to Carrasco type patience have to be wearing thin in the FO. Two years in row now the Indians are looking for rehab starts for Danny in September. At some point enough is enough. We have a World Series to win and right now at least, we have options.

    Salazar has gone on record as saying the bullpen assignment was worse for his arm. At this point, I wouldn’t even consider it an option. If you do put him there, he’s basically good for one appearance a series.

  • JM85

    Kluber, Carrasco and Bauer would be a great rotation for the playoffs. Clevinger would help too. I understand rehabbing Salazar but only to a certain point.

  • Gage Will

    If Salazar gets through these next 4 starts healthy (big if) without any further implosions, I think there is close to 0 chance they give Clev the ball instead of him.

  • Steve

    Clevinger has a FIP/xFIP over four. With his lack of command, has the potential to throw out a stinker too.

    With an arm like Salazar, enough is never enough. You don’t get guys like that all that often, and you have to be willing to move heaven and earth to get them right.

  • Gage Will

    Just monitoring health/effectiveness. I know the soreness has cropped up again repeatedly, but in a world where he gets to 5-6 innings at right velo, I think he’s in the rotation.

  • Chris

    I think Miller’s injury put a lot of untimely pressure on Tito to ride the starters. Look at Salazar’s starts coming off the DL in July…

    Jul 22: 86 pitches
    Jul 28: 97 pitches (Miller’s last appearance is Aug 1)
    Aug 5: 112 pitches
    Aug 10: 103 pitches
    Aug 15: 105 pitches
    Aug 20: 91 pitches (6 ER in 4.2 IP… wheels fall off)

    He shouldn’t have been over 90 pitches in a game, maybe even less. I was actually pretty pleased to see him come out so early against Toronto. Why rush back a small-framed hurler with chronic arm problems? They could have afforded to rotate some extra bullpen arms more than they could afford burning out Salazar.

  • Gage Will

    I would upvote this 1,000 times if I could. Injury management has been a slight disaster recently.

  • jpftribe

    I really like the FO, and I’m smart enough to know they are smarter than me and have access to data we can’t imagine. So I’m good with what they decide. But from my view, the chances of Salazar having 4 healthy non-implosions starts are close to zero. They will be making an imperfect call.

  • Gage Will

    I guess it depends on our respective definitions of implosions. Basically, I just need him to get through the order a couple times in each start provided velo/command are there to feel comfortable with him in October.

  • jpftribe

    To me, the likely scenario is he has a couple of good to fantastic starts, a couple of can’t get the ball over so I’ll groove fastballs starts. And 50/50 chance he wakes up after one of those with a sore elbow, which could be as soon as today.

  • Harv

    I agree with a lot of comments here, including opposing viewpoints. Salazar has a golden arm with movement on pitches, and he could turn dominant on a dime. On the other hand 1): He’s slight of build to be dealing in the mid-upper 90s over 100 pitches, and I’m always wondering whether that frame/weight just can’t leverage the torque long term; 2) Subjectively, appears the light has never gone on, never learned compensatory skills that those with lesser arms learn. Like he’s trying to strike everyone out, which constantly gooses that pitch count. Or, he doesn’t adjust well to his stuff he has on any given night. We criticize Tito for keeping him in, but sometimes he reached those elevated counts by middle innings, meaning someone else is in risk of overuse.

    Maybe Carrasco does provide a limited lesson. He’s grown out of the immature guy who was suspended for hitting a batter because that guy lit him up, only to do it again as soon as the suspension was over. Salazar may be the guy who won’t accept that major league hitters can hit any velocity if they see it enough and it’s not tempered with control and smarts. Or the light may go on and stay on his next start.

  • mgbode

    Salazar at his best is better than Bauer. Heck, he might be the best pitcher we have on our team. Whatever health issues have been happening in his arm are holding him back though.

    I agree we keep him at SP for 2018. I have no clue what he gives us for the 2017 postseason.

  • mgbode

    I’ll take 4 innings of Salazar (assuming non-implosion as you stated) & 3 of Clevinger in a piggyback 4th SP option in the postseason. Giddy up.

  • mgbode

    Add Kluber to those lessons learned as someone with crazy stuff who only learned how to control it later in life:

    Danny is still only 27 years old (the year that Kluber’s light switch flipped).

  • Harv

    and Carrasco credits watching Kluber. Question in my mind: Is Salazar mature or desperate enough to look at the examples sitting next to him? I think he’s arbitration eligible in ’18 but under team control through ’21 – given all those injuries, doesn’t he want a Carrasco pay day?

  • scripty

    He’s already had 1 TJ surgery. It’s just a matter of time for #2.

  • scripty

    Did they make him throw in the BP afterwards to get work in?

  • Steve

    I would add Bauer too to the list of guys I would like to prevent seeing the order a third time. We’ve got the bullpen arms to make it work.

    Though I wonder if you need to split Kluber and Carrasco to make that work.

  • mgbode

    I don’t think you can afford to split Kluber & Carrasco.


    I was just telling someone the other day that, back when I had Clippers 20-game tix packages every year (from their inception as the Tribe AAA squad through 2012 when we found out that, with an infant, we probably weren’t making it to 20 games a year) there was a stretch where every. single. time. we went Kluber was pitching, and he had like a 5.50 ERA and would get lit up.

    If you had told me then that he’d win a Cy Young (should be two and counting) I’d have asked if you wanted to buy some marshland real estate.

  • Steve

    Depends on if we consider using Kluber on three days rest (I think I would). If so, Kluber could go games one and four in the ALDS, and Carrasco in two and five, with the latter being on regular rest. If not, I see little difference in splitting them, both Carrasco and Salazar/pen would need to pitch exactly once.

    In a seven game series, I guess I would prefer not to split them, as the likelihood of having a game six is quite a bit higher than a game seven, so get Carrasco those innings, but there’s also a strong possibility that you won’t get the days off to set up your rotation exactly as you want it.

  • tsm

    With an 11 game lead, I give him his starts, but limit his pitch count. As others have mentioned, if he has it going, he might be our best SP. No harm in seeing if he can get it back. If not, then Clevinger can go.

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