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.