The question of Danny Salazar’s health has hung over the head of the Cleveland Indians for the majority of 2016. The last time he actually pitched was September 9, and he did not look very good before being pulled after four innings.
But now, six weeks and a whole lot of rest and rehab later, Danny Salazar might return to the Indians’ starting rotation in the biggest series yet.
It’s a rotation that managed to get actually more dinged up since Salazar was officially shut down for the remainder of the regular season. Carlos Carrasco took a comebacker off his throwing hand, and Trevor Bauer got too close to a drone.
Given that this is the World Series, after all, everyone is looking for a story. But the story of Danny Salazar riding in on a white horse and saving the Indians from the big bad Chicago Cubs is likely a fairy tale.
How ready is Salazar, really?
First, context is important. Danny Salazar does feel like he is 100% ready-to-go, according to a recent report from Cleveland.com, but he has only thrown in simulated games to this point of around three innings and he only recently started throwing off-speed pitches as he gradually worked back from his elbow and forearm injuries.
But what kind of help will he actually be in the World Series? The Indians are already accustomed to winning games without their starters going long outings. They have done so numerous times already in the postseason, even if planned “bullpen days” were rarely a success in the regular season.
With Danny Salazar in the mix, the Indians could almost employ Matt Schlichting’s idea of starting with an “opener” instead of a traditional starting pitcher. But in this case, instead of opening with Andrew Miller, the Indians could start Danny Salazar with the idea that he could last three innings — hopefully not more than one-and-a-half times through the deadly Cubs lineup, at most.
Just don’t expect seven shutdown innings out of a guy that has not pitched more than a simulated game in weeks, and one who was not terribly consistent before that.
The Indians are fully in their right to not disclose their plans, of course, so maybe they are hiding something. But from the sounds of it, even Terry Francona and pitching coach Mikey Callaway are not sure what Salazar’s role would be in a potential World Series appearance. From that same Clecom article:
Callaway wouldn't speculate if Salazar would start or relieve. But manager Terry Francona, after announcing his first three starters for the World Series as Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer and Josh Tomlin, left the door open when he said the rotation was TBA (to be announced) after that.
Between Salazar’s potential return and the potential return of Cubs outfielder Kyle Schwarber, the talk of the national media is likely going to turn into a big “whose return will have the bigger impact” fest. When, in reality, neither of those players — while important to their teams when completely healthy — are not going to have a huge impact on the games themselves.
Salazar hasn’t been great since June
As for what we can expect from Salazar, it’s really difficult to tell. All I can find about the simulated games is that Roberto Perez homered off of him and he was throwing a mix of sliders, fastballs, and curveballs. Nothing on his velocity or how sharp his slider was biting. I’m no pitching coach, but those two things seem important.
Salazar’s velocity, for the most part, seemed fine even with his injuries this season. His fourseam fastball started a little low compared to previous years at 95 mph, but there was almost no drop-off throughout the year like their normally is. It was consistently in the mid-to-high 90s every month of 2016. And remember, Salazar was an All-Star and legitimate Cy Young contender early on in the season. So the issue for him was never velocity this season. It was control.
Even when he was succeeding in the first half of the year, Salazar’s walk rate was extremely high — 10.8 percent. It was also exactly 10.8 percent in the 32 innings he pitched in the second half. Unfortunately, when he wasn’t walking batters he was lobbing meatballs over the center of the plate; there was no kind of control of the edge of the zone or the dominance that we have seen flashes of in prior seasons.
In years past, Salazar was great the first time through the order, but often struggled the second or third time around in the later innings. In 2016, it was weirdly the opposite. His walk rate the first time through the order was an astounding 14.8 percent, but it drops to the single-digits subsequent times through the order. Mostly because those walks were replaced with home runs or other damaging hits, however.
The Indians have already proved they can win without Danny
Corinne Landrey wrote a great piece on FanGraphs titled “Does Cleveland Even Need Danny Salazar?” this morning. Following Betteridge’s law of headlines, which states, “Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no,” the answer was, in fact, no. The Indians don’t absolutely need Danny Salazar to win the World Series.
Landrey does not think Salazar will pitch more than five innings either, and she notes that his sinker — which has been Salazar’s worst pitch in 2016 — could be a non-factor in a such a small sample size.
That’s the big thing about the playoffs, which we have seen already. These games, even these series as a whole, are such small snippets of baseball that everything we know about analytics and trying to predict outcomes becomes mostly useless.
The Indians were tremendous underdogs against both the Boston Red Sox and Toronto Blue Jays, but they managed to pull those out, even with a dead offense for most of the ALCS. Neither of those teams are the Cubs, granted, but this is the World Series. Anything can happen — with or without Danny Salazar.