Take a look at how the Indians have handled phenom pitcher Danny Salazar the past couple of years and you instantly notice they’re doing things a little differently in Cleveland. From the long recovery time to the big innings jump, Salazar’s comeback from Tommy John surgery has been on a unique timeline. Salazar is happy to get the training wheels off this year, and before opening night, he talked with me about the long road back and some of the peculiarities of his teams’ approach.
There are parts of his recovery that were fairly standard when it comes to baseball’s best practices. Most pitchers talk of using the time to hone in on their mechanics. George Kontos worked with his coaches to stay on top of the ball and raise his arm angle, which produced some great results. It turns out Salazar was doing the same thing. “Trying to stay on top” of his change-up was a real goal, especially when he recognized he was throwing harder after the surgery. He wanted to take advantage of the widening velocity difference between his pitches.
And some of the timing of his rehab schedule sounds familiar, too. “You don’t start throwing bullpens until eight months after surgery,” Salazar said. Even then, post-op pitchers throw only fastballs for about a month and then add the change-up. Like Jarrod Parker said last year, you leave the breaking pitches out of the bullpen until later when you’re coming back from Tommy John surgery. The sliders Salazar said he threw in rehab were from 60 feet, “during the throwing program,” and not at max effort, “so you don’t get hurt.”
But there was something the Indians did differently with respect the timing of his rehab. Danny Salazar’s first game action in the minor leagues after his Aug. 1, 2010, surgery came on Aug. 3 of the next year. The surgeon told Salazar that he’d be able to pitch in “nine-to-10 months,” but the Indians had a different policy: “They always go for 12 with everyone,” Salazar says. “They give you an extra two months, just in case.”
Coming back from Tommy John surgery is tough enough. In an article for the 2013 Hardball Times Annual, Jeff Zimmerman and Brian Cartwright found strikeout and walk rates are usually 5% worse the first year back from surgery, before regressing their way back to career norms the next year. But the 28 pitchers who returned quicker than 12 months from Tommy John saw their control get worse in the second year. It’s only on the order of 2% worse, but those pitchers didn’t, as a group, get the second-year bounce in control that other Tommy John pitchers have seen. And the list of early returners is fraught with complications and setbacks: Scott Proctor, Taylor Buchholz, Jaime Garcia, Shaun Marcum, Josh Johnson, Rich Hill, Shawn Kelley, Daniel Hudson and Brandon Beachy didn’t have 12 months between their surgery and minor league return dates.
The Indians continued to save bullets and take things slowly with Salazar this spring. While veterans Corey Kluber, Zach McAllister, Josh Tomlin and Justin Masterson got more than 20 innings each, Salazar totaled 10.1 innings for the entire month. “We took everything slower” this spring, Salazar says, but he pointed out that he threw five innings in his last start.
Other than the slow spring, the team hasn’t given the pitcher any indication he’s on an innings limit. The Indians are “just going to let me go this year,” Salazar said with a smile. But what about in-game pitch limits? “I hope not. Maybe the first couple games — maybe they do that — but they haven’t told me,” Salazar admitted, though he reiterated the idea he’s ready to go this year, and the training wheels are off.
And that wouldn’t be inconsistent with the approach the Indians have taken so far, really. They took it slowly in 2011, when he was returning from surgery. And 2012 only had 87.2 innings in it for Salazar. But when it was time for his innings to count in the big league standings, the Indians let him go: He threw 145 innings last year, well beyond the standard innings jump you see around the league with other young pitchers.
Salazar, for his part, seems excited to focus on baseball things — like “being a little more consistent with keeping the ball down” to avoid home runs — and not on how many innings he’ll be allowed to pitch this year. That’s the team’s concern, and it seems like they did what they could early on to make sure he could pitch as much as possible now.
That’s good, because anyone who can do this with a regular circle-change grip should continue to do so for everyone’s enjoyment:
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.