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How Danny Salazar can thrive in the face of tradition

The Tribe pitcher is headed to the bullpen. Why can’t this be a good thing?

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at Cleveland Indians David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

A very disappointing start to the 2017 season for Danny Salazar has resulted in the Cleveland Indians moving him to the bullpen for the foreseeable future.

With the return of Corey Kluber pending and Mike Clevinger having earned his way into the rotation simply by performing, Salazar is the odd man out, not getting the job done despite his incredible stuff. Everyone agrees this is a demotion of sorts, because being a starter is the pinnacle and Salazar couldn’t cut it this year. The traditions of baseball make us think he’s now less able to help the team, that his status on the team should be lower. It’s times like this that makes me hate tradition.

Tradition states that, in this demotion, Salazar is the failure. That’s because as a pitcher, either a starter, the star closer, or one of any number of almost useless middle relievers. Tradition has taken a hit here, as we’ve found this last part to be false in recent years with the rise of truly elite bullpens that can silence teams for half a game. But you have to think that no matter the conversation Terry Francona had with his pitcher, Salazar is very disappointed and sees no silver lining here. Every pitcher wants to be a starter ideally, both for the pride and recognition it bestows and the impact on the bank account. But why can’t this be the second great harbinger for the bullpen revolution, a year after the supposedly seismic shift brought on by Andrew Miller? Why can’t Salazar be a 100-inning reliever instead?

Admittedly, the numbers for Salazar this year don’t actually provide confidence in this idea. Over his first 25 pitches in a game, batters own a 1.221 OPS against him, which drops to .701 in the following 25. His first time through an order, Salazar is hit to the tune of a 1.127 OPS, while the second time through the order that mark slides to .669. If we look at only these numbers, we’re led to believe that he’d be dreadful as a reliever. Bullpen guys don’t often go more than 25 or 30 pitches, so if your pitcher takes a couple to get into his groove, that might be a bad thing. But all this only looks at it in a vacuum, that he’s simply bad early on for no reason. That can’t be the end of the story though.

Salazar himself has pointed to a couple reasons why he has such problems early on. One possible culprit, according to him, is his use of weighted balls to warm up. To listen to him, using these gets his arm warmed up before the rest of his body, so he is a bit wild. That does make some sense, the weighted ball would stretch out the arm and maybe throw his mechanics off for a bit and it takes a bit for things to lock back in. Kind of like how ESPN’s Sam Miller explored Yu Darvish’s being bad for the first batter every game. Pitching is repetition. You have to do everything basically the same each time to have consistent success. If certain muscles are more warm than others, if muscle memory is thrown off, it will take time for the body to catch back up.

That’s how Salazar phrased it to the Cleveland Plain-Dealer:

"I started doing the weighted balls last year when I got hurt," said Salazar. "It's good. I don't know if that's it. I started doing it in spring training last year, but I started throwing pitches all over the place. I couldn't find my release point. Then I stopped doing it and I was fine."

He went on to tell the Plain-Dealer that his timing felt off early in games. The Indians have recently nixed the weighted balls from his routine, though it did little good in his last outing. If he ended up in the ‘pen full-time, maybe the extra time while the game goes on would allow him to get everything moving the same way. Perhaps he could piggyback with other starters, or be scheduled twice a week to throw two innings no matter what, and have all that extra time to get everything in line and doing what he wants. It’s not as though he doesn’t have time to warm up before the actual game of course. If anything he has more time. But warming up quickly perhaps could help him get everything moving the same speed as his arm more quickly, because he has no chance to ease into it as he would with a start. That dovetails with the other piece of Salazar that could make him lethal out of the bullpen.

After getting shelled in early May, Salazar noted that some of his teammates think he throws better when he’s angry. The idea being, he’s too calm starting games and doesn’t work up enough of a lather until he’s in hot water. By then it’s often too late to do much but limit damage. Bullpen pitchers generally come out firing, full of adrenaline and piss and vinegar and throw at super max effort. Could this be what would help Salazar? It stands to reason that he throws max effort anyway, since he’s kind of small but throws so hard. But he’s also trying to navigate a lineup two or three times. He has to hold back a bit simply because he wants to be a 25 to 30 game starter. That seems to fly in the face of his skill set, considering his durability issues the last couple years. He did get 30 starts in 2015, his peak of 185 innings, but before and after that he hit 20 and 25 starts. That’s already looking like what might happen this season.

But what if starts weren't’ the goal, or even having the role of starter? What if there’s another level that could be squeezed into 90 or 100 innings? Salazar is plainly a man who pitches through emotion. This is a classic hallmark of many great relievers.

I do think Salazar could be an incredible relief pitcher, and in a different mold than we’re used to. Whether or not it would actually work out, where he could throw 100 innings in 65 or so appearances with supreme numbers, that’s all supposition. But he won’t want to be because that’s not where the money is. Not with Cody Allen and Andrew Miller ahead of him in the pecking order. It’s fun to imagine Salazar taking the role of a right-handed Miller, striking everyone out for two or three innings and being a vital fireman on days when Miller is off, or paired with Miller in the postseason. It’s how I imagined the Indians would use him last October since he wasn’t fully healthy enough to start. But tradition dictates that he keep making the shot for the rotation.

I worry for Salazar’s durability due to his smallness and hard-throwingness, and 100 innings of him at his best is might be more useful for the team than 175 of merely pretty good. Maybe not in actual math terms, but with the depth of the Tribe rotation (If Clevinger is for real and Bauer has settled in after a volatile April) a long man that’s not just there for garbage cleanup out of the bullpen means games aren’t six or seven innings against the Indians anymore. They’re potentially four or five. At the first hint of trouble Salazar could come in and mow batters down, then hand the ball to Shaw or Miller, and on to Allen. Three top flight relievers with longevity is nice. Four is much better. Plus, if the brain trust forged a new role for him as a regularly scheduled reliever, that would be a strange sea change. Not quite a piggy-back starter like in the minors, but he throws on Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays, always for two innings no matter what. It’s a neat idea, and would save a lot of arms including Salazar’s.

That’s how the bullpen revolution could really be kicked off. It could crash and burn of course, but why not give it a try? It seems perfect to me, tradition be damned.