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.
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.
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.