Danny Salazar was something to behold last year, when he was called up last season. He posted a 3.12 ERA over ten starts, with a 11.25 K/9 ratio that was the highest in franchise history for any pitcher with 50+ innings. During the offseason he was commonly referred to as the Indians' #2 starter, with some even calling him the team's ace. Such praise and lofty expectations ignored that Salazar pitched into the 6th inning only once in 20 Minor League starts last season, and averaged barely 5 innings in his 10 MLB starts, and while I couldn't blame anyone for being excited, given his incredible fastball and the very impressive strikeout totals he'd posted all along the way, I was also hesitant to fully buy into him as a dominant MLB pitcher.
That said, I certainly thought he'd be better than this.
Through 4 starts Salazar has pitched just 18.1 innings. He's got 23 strikeouts, which is a very impressive total, but he's also allowed 26 hits, including 5 home runs, and he's walked 10. His ERA is an ugly 7.85, which works out to an ERA+ of 49. HIs FIP is less ugly, at 5.70, but that's still terrible. His first appearance wasn't so so (though he was fortunate to allow only two runs), but he's now given up 5 runs in three straight starts, and has failed to get through the 5th inning in any of those three games.
A few facts, along with some commentary:
* Salazar's velocity down 2-3 MPH on each of his pitches. It's possible this is only a matter of it being early in the year, and that in a month or two, he'll be back to his 2013 velocity.
* While Salazar's K/9 ratio is practically identical to what it was a year ago, he's facing more batters per inning, which means his K% is down from 30.8 to 26.1 (that's still an excellent figure).
* Last year hitters had a swinging strike percentage of 14.6 against Salazar, which was the highest in baseball. This year it's 9.2, which would have tied him for 64th among pitchers with 50+ innings last year (so it's above average, but nothing special).
* Salazar BB% is all the way up to 11.4. Among the 35 qualified starting pitchers in the American League last season, the highest BB% was 10.5. It's possible to be a successful starting pitcher with that kind of walk rate, but very difficult.
* Salazar's home-run rate (HR/9) of 1.21 last year was high, but so far this year, it's way, way, way up to 2.45. That will come down as he pitches more, but it's a clear sign that despite all those strikeouts, he's throwing some very hittable pitches.
* Salazar is throwing his slider less (7.5% of all pitches, down from 12.2% last season). That's understandable, because his slider is getting tattooed right now (hitters have a 1.625 slugging percentage against his slider so far this season).
* Since he seems to have less confidence in his slider, he's throwing his fastball(s) more than before, especially when behind in the count. Salazar is throwing his 4-seam fastball 79% of the time when he's behind in the count, incuding 86% of the time when he's facing a right-handed hitter.
* His fastball more predictable and it's slower, so hitters are missing it less frequently and hitting it harder. His slider isn't helping matters, which leads to him throwing it less, which leads back to the first problem.
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I'm not expert enough to know if there's a release point issue, or some other mechanical problem. After his previous start, Salazar said he was over-thinking things, and maybe that's true. I don't claim to know what is best for him, but I disagree with those who say there is nothing left that Salazar could learn at Triple-A. He has pitched precisely 59.1 innings at that level; he's not a guy who dominated there for two straight seasons. Maybe he can improve his slider, maybe he can learn to get through at bats on fewer pitchers.
Frankly, while I think there's plenty he could gain from being sent down for a while, that's largely beside the point, because he isn't cutting it at the MLB level, and the Indians are trying to contend, and Salazar is hurting their chances right now.
If the Indians had no one to take Salazar's place in the rotation right now, then I'd say keep trotting Salazar out there and hope something changes, but they do have some one, because Trevor Bauer has been great this month. Bauer has made three starts for Columbus, and is sporting a 0.96 ERA in 18.1 innings, with 21 strikeouts, 6 walks, and 0 home runs allowed. He made a spot start for the Tribe two weeks ago and allowed only 1 earned run in 6 innings, with 8 Ks and 2 walks. His velocity has been better than it was at any point last season, and he suddenly feels like the pitcher we've hoped he would become.
I don't think Salazar can't cut it as a starter (I'm not in favor of him being tried in the bullpen, be it in Cleveland or Columbus, I want him starting), but he isn't cutting it right now, and when the Indians face the Giants Sunday afternoon, I hope it's Bauer, not Salazar who takes the mound.