Does Cleveland Even Need Danny Salazar?

When looking at postseason matchups, the quickest and most natural thing on which to focus is the relative strength of each club’s starting rotation. About a month ago, I wrote about this tendency to get caught up in starting-pitching matchups during postseason overanalysis — in part because it’s something that I myself tend to overanalyze. Which is why I looked at Cleveland at the start of the postseason and gave them little chance to advance to the Division Series or, certainly, the World Series. Lesson learned.

That piece focused on the string of starting pitcher-injuries at the end of the season and their impact on playoff rotations — including, of course, Cleveland. The loss of the No. 2 and No. 3 in their rotation — Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar — represented a devastating blow, and it was natural to wonder how it would impact their October chances. However, it was (and is) undeniable that the team had a tremendous bullpen, which is why this was my conclusion at the time:

“If the rotation can keep them competitive through five or six innings and the offense plays its part, there’s absolutely still a path to October success for Cleveland. Cling to that while all of the pregame overanalyses look unfavorably upon the majority of Cleveland’s starting-pitcher matchups this October.”

As expected, Cleveland’s bullpen has been simply tremendous. With just six earned runs allowed in 32.1 innings pitched, they’re sporting a 1.67 ERA. The significantly less expected development, though, is that the rotation has done a heckuva lot more than just keep the team competitive. The rotation as a whole has allowed a similarly impressive eight earned runs through 38.2 IP, giving that unit a tremendous 1.86 ERA. Obviously Corey Kluber has been a significant part of that success, but so too has Josh Tomlin’s three earned runs in 10.2 IP and Ryan Merritt’s delightfully shocking 4.1 shutout innings. The only starting pitcher for whom the bullpen has really been compelled to clean up is Trevor Bauer and his drone-afflicted pinky.

Should this alleviate all concerns and make anyone, like me, who doubted Cleveland’s rotation feel silly? Of course not. Tomlin and Merritt have delivered terrific results when called upon, but that doesn’t make them terrific major-league starters. The rotation was a weakness heading into the postseason and, with Bauer’s injury, the situation has only worsened.

But is there hope on the horizon? Yesterday, Danny Salazar pitched three innings in a simulated game at Progressive Field. According to Jordan Bastian of MLB.com, things are progressing well for Salazar right now:

“During the American League Division Series, Salazar continued his throwing program in Arizona, where he faced hitters for the first time since the injury. The pitcher then joined the Indians during the AL Championship Series in Toronto, where he threw a two-inning sim game. On Sunday, the righty faced an assortment of Cleveland’s regular batters with two breaks between his innings.

“[I feel] really strong right now,” Salazar said. “The way I feel right now is the way I feel like when I’m 100 percent.”

It remains to be seen whether the team doctors deem him healthy enough for inclusion on the World Series roster, but it certainly appears to be a very real possibility. He could play a role out of the bullpen or even as a starter given the current state of the team’s rotation. Over the past few seasons, Salazar has been a valuable pitcher for Cleveland, and there is no denying that having more healthy options is an unequivocally good thing for the team. With that said, it’s worth taking a look at Salazar with a critical eye and noting one somewhat unsettling trend.

salazar_rolling_era

In the first half of the 2016 season, Salazar posted a tremendous 2.75 ERA and was awarded with his first-ever selection the All-Star Game. After the All-Star break, however, things fell apart for Salazar and he posted a cringe-worthy 7.44 ERA in the eight starts before a forearm strain ended his season in early September. An interesting note about this tale of two seasons is how nothing and everything changed simultaneously:

Danny Salazar 2016 1st/2nd Half Splits
2016 Season ERA K% BB% BABIP HR/FB%
1st Half 2.75 27.6% 10.8% 0.269 9.8%
2nd Half 7.44 27.4% 10.8% 0.416 21.2%

On the season as a whole, Salazar posted a 27.6% strikeout rate, which was tied for eighth best among the 106 pitchers who recorded 130-plus innings. However, he also posted a 10.8% walk rate that was fourth worst. These strikeout and walk tendencies remained eerily similar across the two halves of Salazar’s season, but the results of the batted balls against Salazar underwent tremendous changes. There’s nothing sustainable about a .416 BABIP but the corresponding spike in home run rate on fly balls (HR/FB%) does give rise to the validity of a concern that batters were making increasingly solid contact against him.

The most obvious question is “Did anything change in what Salazar was doing?” The answer is “Yes”:

salazar_2016_pitch_usage

Salazar is primarily a fastball/changeup pitcher. He has breaking pitches, but they are his tertiary options. In the second half of this season, though, the way he used his fastballs changed substantially, as he grew increasingly reliant on the sinker. Here’s the good thing about the sinker: it gets grounders. Last season, it induced grounders on 64.3% of balls in play; this year, that figure was 60.2%. Compare that to the corresponding 33.5% and 38.8% ground-ball rates of the four-seamer, consider the stellar infield defense behind him, and it’s easy to see why Salazar has been playing with the sinker more.

With that said, the actual results against the sinker this year have been downright awful. In 2016, opponents have hit .355 and slugged .564 against the pitch. Compare that to the .248 average and .369 slugging percentage against the four-seamer, and it’s fair to wonder if the increase in sinker usage is a good thing. In case you’re wondering, no, this is not a BABIP-fueled discrepancy. The BABIP allowed against the sinker this year was .359 compared to .341 on the four-seamer. Instead, it’s related to the fact that when the ball isn’t hit on the ground against his sinker, it’s going for a homer at a rate which is hardly ideal. Consider the 17.1% HR/(FB+LD) rate against the sinker compared to the 5.4% rate against the four-seamer.

It’s difficult to imagine Salazar pitching much more than five innings for Cleveland this World Series, as an absolute best-case scenario. In such a small sample, it’s entirely possible that the struggles he’s experienced with the sinker will have absolutely no impact on his ability to pitch effectively if called upon. He’s a guy with mid- to upper-90s fastball velocity and a terrific changeup. At first glance, that sounds like a profile that could play up in relief if that’s the role he’s given this week — as if Cleveland needs another multi-inning relief pitching weapon. But he’s also a guy who, despite his end of the season struggles, has an undeniably superior track record as a starter to any non-Kluber member of Cleveland’s patchwork rotation. If he gets the all-clear, there’s little doubt manager Terry Francona will be able to find a way to utilize him.

In the meantime, I’ll continue to try to learn my lesson: there’s more to postseason success than what a starting rotation looks likes on paper.





Corinne Landrey writes for FanGraphs and MLB.com's Cut4 site. Follow her on Twitter @crashlandrey.

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phoenix2042member
5 years ago

Given that he probably needs to build up arm strength, I wonder how many pitches he can throw. 40? 50? More? He’s the kind of pitcher to have long at bats (K and BBs), and the Cubs are the kind of team to have long at bats regularly. Sounds like a recipe for 45 pitches in 2 innings (even without scoring), and then going to the bullpen because he’s reached his limit. Might be a better option to pair him with one of the young starters, so you can give them each 3-4 innings.

Max Power
5 years ago
Reply to  phoenix2042

I’d expect him to be paired with Merrit in Game 4, with either Salazar or Merrit starting, going through the line-up once and then flipping to exploit the platoons, and if the Cubs pinch-hit then flipping again to either Shaw/Miller. They only really need 4-5 innings combined between the two of them, and with Salazar’s durability and Merrit’s talent they would be pushing their luck with anything more.

stuck in a slump
5 years ago
Reply to  Max Power

The best part about this is the two completely different looks that it will give the Cubs hitters. To go from a flame throwing righty with control issues to a pinpoint control finesse lefty could give the hitters fits, hopefully they would both be able to go through the lineup at least once for maximum effectiveness.