Indians

100 Innings of Danny Salazar: The Chris Devenski Approach

The grueling, lengthy Major League Baseball season allows for significant variances in the realm of player evaluation, from the perspective of fans. As fans, we detest the guy who is hitless in his last 20 plate appearances and are already making the calls to designate him for assignment. When the same player hits three homers in a week stretch a month or two later, we are sucked backed in. By nature, fanhood is reactionary, and this remains true with views of Danny Salazar.

In 2013, Danny was destined to be a frontline starter. Four years later, inconsistency is the main story, headlined by arm health questions and apparent confidence issues. For multiple stretches over the past couple years, Salazar teased Tribe faithful with brilliance. Expectations mounted and tumbled. Instead of cycling through this repeated exercise, the Indians could look to transform Salazar.

Look no further than the 2017 World Series champion Houston Astros. Over the past couple years, they have turned elite arm Chris Devenski into a bullpen weapon, built from the same mold as Andrew Miller in the 2016 playoffs. Devenski has registered 189 innings over the past two years in only 110 appearances. A clip of 1.72 innings per appearance is well outside the traditional bullpen role, and this usage has paid its dividends.

Going back to the beginning of the 2016 season, only six relievers in baseball have accumulated more wins above replacement than Chris Devenski. Part of this is certainly attributable to his efficiency on the mound – he sports a 10% strikeout rate and a 2.38 earned run average over the period. The other aspect is the specialized usage. Instead of capping his outings off at an inning each, Astros manager A.J. Hinch has allowed him to tackle four to six hitters each appearance. This is the wave of the future in bullpen management.

The primary benefit of moving Devenski into this role is your primary arm is accounting for a larger share of your bullpen’s innings. An important secondary benefit, however, is more high leverage action for your best bullpen arm. The ability to pick and choose when you want to inject an arm like that into the game affords manager’s flexibility in their usage of starters and other pen arms.

The Indians must find a way to incorporate the elite right arm of Danny Salazar. If he cannot give you 200 innings as a starter, the reasonable course of action is to try and get him for 100 innings as a reliever. His profile lends itself well to bullpen success, too. There are three things to look for in premier relievers – the ability to miss bats, a dominant pitch, and command. Two of these three are easy for Salazar, while the third would likely be the greatest obstacle of a bullpen transition.

Whiffs

This is an easy mark for Salazar. We know all about the tribulations of his 2017 season. Throughout the peaks and plateaus of Salazar success, whiffs were one of the constants. Among pitchers with at least 100 innings, he led the league with a 16.4 swinging strike percentage. Generating more whiffs than the likes of Corey Kluber, Max Scherzer, and Clayton Kershaw is not the work of an average arm.

An important caveat of this whiff success is that Salazar sustained this mark as a starting pitcher. Velocity increases in moves to the bullpen are well-documented. Andrew Miller himself saw his fastball velocity spike two to three miles per hour in the transition from starter to reliever. The impact of a two-mile per hour spike in fastball velocity cannot be understated. In 2017, hitters posted a .330 weighted on-base average against 95 to 96 mile per hour fastballs (where Salazar typically sits) compared to a .304 weighted on-base average against 97 to 98 mile per hour fastballs. The move to the bullpen could unlock an even more efficient Salazar, with even more whiffs to follow.

A Dominant Pitch

The efficacy of Danny Salazar’s split-change has never been questioned. While hampered by other inconsistencies, the split-change has been his calling card. As far as changeups are concerned, pitch values proclaim it to be the best pitch of that sort in baseball over the past three seasons. It is a strikeout pitch that does not lose any of its luster in a potential bullpen transition.

Whether it’s a Kenley Jansen or Aroldis Chapman fastball or an Andrew Miller slider, dominant relievers have one thing in common: a dependable weapon in the arsenal to lean on when in need of the high leverage strikeout. Salazar’s split-change seems like a natural fit in this grouping and could become even more devastating, especially considering it could potentially be paired with increased fastball velocity.

Command

The lone concern with appointing Salazar to a crucial bullpen role is fleeting command. The past two seasons have not gone well in this arena, as he has posted his two highest walk rates of his career. Avoiding walks is paramount, especially for relievers. The hope would be that moving to a different role would allow Salazar to refine his approach. Attacking hitters without worrying about longevity might lend way to improved command.

2018 is the year to make this move with Salazar. Cody Allen and Andrew Miller are headed for free agency after the season, barring a last-minute extension. Danny Salazar, if used in the mold of Chris Devenski, can offer a suitable replacement for one of these two. Under team control through 2021, Salazar’s window coincides with the contract statuses of Jose Ramirez, Francisco Lindor, and Corey Kluber.

Two inning stints, 50 times a year. The stuff is there, it’s time for the Indians to see if Danny Salazar can find the appropriate mentality to be successful in the bullpen.

  • Chris

    Do whatever it takes to keep him healthy. If this accomplishes that, I’m all for it. He can be so damn dominant

  • Gage Will

    We have been robbed of Danny Salazar in October.

  • Steve

    I’m not sure about reliever, I like two times through the order starter. Tomlin is another guy who could be used like this.

  • Gage Will

    Why intentionally limit usage to low leverage?

  • mgbode

    I am worried that he noted his arm was worse pitching more often (rather than more pitches) the first time they tried to move him to the bullpen.

  • mgbode

    We might need to have a leverage discussion. Late innings w/ big score discrepancy is low leverage. Late innings w/ close score is high leverage. But, early innings, what should we call the leverage? I mean, if the starter sucks, then there’s a good chance he’s setting up low leverage later? Too much is unknown & out of control of that pitcher (namely the opposing pitcher) to state it is high leverage. It’s a weird corner.

  • Chris

    Ya, but he was already aching when they sent him to the pen in the first place. That’s not a good starting point for comparison.

    How has he reacted while in the pen at 100-percent? (Hell, has that even happened?)

  • mgbode

    Has Salazar been 100%? I don’t know.

  • Gage Will

    Sure – but controlling when you can use that leverage is important. I don’t want to waste one of his 30 appearances after the Indians score 4-5 in the first two innings

  • Bulldogs_3

    Why not add him to the rotation as a reliever? If you are going to use him for one or two times through the order, why not assign him to come in the 4th or 5th inning every time Tomlin and/or Clevinger pitches? Call it a ‘bullpen game’ if you want to or a ‘2-starter’ game.

  • mgbode

    Yeah, that’s why it’s tricky. Sometimes the starter giving up even 2 runs is too much. I don’t think labeling it “medium” leverage is quite correct either. Almost like we need starters to get “hindsight leverage” adjustments.

  • Bulldogs_3

    Love this idea… the article references the wrong Astros players I think though… Look at their game 7 guys (ALCS and WS): McCullers and Morton. Both are traditional starters that had excellent seasons but were not considered the ace of the staff by any means. Let them have short outings knowing the other will relieve, and that’s one hell of a game plan. Could see the similar results from a Tomlin/Salazar/Clevinger combo.

  • Gage Will

    McCullers and Morton went into that role for the playoffs – they will be starting pitchers again in April. I’m talking about a season long of 2 inning middle of the game Salazar appearances.

  • Bulldogs_3

    I get that. But the Indians have deep starting pitching depth, is it that unrealistic to have a rotation of:
    Kluber, Tomlin/Salazar, Carrasco, Clevinger/Salazar, Bauer?

  • Steve

    Looking at game seven of the WS, a 5-0 lead at the start of the third has a 0.52 leverage. First batter reaches? 0.98. You can get that leverage back up very quickly. First two times through the order is not low leverage.

    And the issue with the Devenski plan is that he only threw 80 innings this year.

  • Gage Will

    I don’t think we are far off here, but I wouldn’t tie him to starting pitchers. Limits flexibility. Use him mid-game when needed. For 2 innings at a time. That’s all I’m asking.

  • Eric Berkey

    I just wonder if this is feasible, with Carl Willis back as the pitching coach. I think this is an excellent idea considering, but ‘ol Carl is pretty traditional (and a surprising hire given this regime). I just wonder if we have to temper our expectations about the ingenuity of how the pitching staff will be utilized going forward with Mickey in New York now.

  • Bulldogs_3

    Agreed, I was thinking spread the starters out a bit to allow this to happen. If the rotation order is Kluber, Carrasco, Bauer, how many 2 inning appearances will be needed in that 3 game stretch? If you can work Tomlin/Clevinger in the mix (instead of at the end of the rotation), that would allow more appearances from Salazar with at least a day or two of rest.