In what can only be called a disappointing development, the Indians are shipping Danny Salazar to the bullpen. He's been intermittently effective at best this year, but even so it's a far cry from where he was the first half of last year. Or even the first half of this past August, when he looked to be "back".
He's supposedly the Indians third best starter, though Mike Clvinger and Trevor Bauer have shown incredible growth this year, and it's never ideal to relegate a good starter to the bullpen this late in the season. Maybe there's a silver lining, though. He might have the tools to be great in relief.
As I wrote about this week, Salazar did not have velocity problems coming off the disabled list. We don't know if he had issues with his secondary pitches because he was pulled too quickly to be able to start folding them into his sequences. So it's not like he's suddenly useless.
Salazar just doesn't seem to be able to help the team right now. Could he as a reliever, though? The conventional wisdom is that a starter moving to the 'pen will experience a velocity boost. We saw it wish Zach McAllister, jumping from 94 in 2014 when he made 24 starts to 96 as a full-time reliever in 2015. We see it in Andrew Miller, leaping from 93 to 95 between 2011 and '12. It's not iron-clad of course, but it makes sense. You aren't trying to go 7 innings/100 pitches, you're trying to get three guys out, or through the order once. For Salazar, though, if Tuesday was any indication he'll have trouble improving on his velocity simply because it’s already nearing the limit of humanity:
Number rounding on the broadcast suggested he hit 99 at one point when he was really in the weeds, and who knows, maybe he could hit 100 once or twice. The great worry is that doing it consistently also might make him explode in a literal ball of flame. You could logic your way into thinking Salazar could be a 100+ mph guy, but the fact is, Aroldis Chapman is a mutant. Edwin Diaz is more the idea, a guy that throws hard and tickles 100 sometimes. Not exactly Diaz though, his walk rate has doubled while his strikeout rate dropped 10 percent from his explosive debut a year ago. And his fastball doesn’t have the life like Salazar’s does. Still, Salazar throws hard, and that is useful. Unlike McAllister he has a secondary pitch that happens to be quite excellent in his splitter. He just has an odd issue with when he first sees guys.
Since debuting in 2013, Salazar has been good, except in the first inning. For his career, which contains 101.2 innings worth of firsts. Basically point for point, he's been worse compared to his career average. It's been stunningly exacerbated the last two years, a span of 41.2 innings:
Danny Salazar First Inning Stats
|16-17 1st Inning||6.26||4.85||30.5||14.2||18.6||.370|
It is not ideal for a relief pitcher to struggle when he first sees guys. And unlike with starting pitchers, there's not a lot of time for relievers to get ready. It happens in a rush, with little windup. There's less chance for Salazar, as he explained it, get his lower half to catch up with his arm. That’s what he said was the problem anyway.
Belying the first inning problem though, Salazar does allow a good but not quite great .740 OPS against with men on base, and a mere .691 OPS against in the first 25 pitches of any outing. The issue in the first innings for him is generally just control and allowing runners, not getting blasted. Though he does seem to get frustrated at times, as with Tuesday when his pitches don’t behave. But relievers don't always come in with nobody on, and walks loom large in high leverage situations. As psychobabble-ish as it sounds, he’d need to harness that frustration. Even if many great relievers are all fire and brimstone, they don’t start melting down when things don’t go their way.
The dream is that the Indians end up in the postseason with a right-handed Miller, who can come out in the fifth or sixth when things look hairy and just strike everything in sight out. Sort of an accidental Devenski, I suppose. In the playoffs, avoiding the Third Time Through the Order Penalty is what got the Indians so far when they started Josh Tomlin, Ryan Merritt, and Tervor Bauer. You just need as many zeroed out innings as possible. In theory it makes sense that Salazar could do that. He gets a million strikeouts and he has a perfectly complementary pitch for his main weapon to be deadly, without having to work other pitches into the mix to keep hitters guessing. He's a perfect twice through the order type of pitcher, and he's pitched like it in his career:
There are other pitches in there, but such a negligible amount that it's almost as if he's toying with them, not committing to anything. Aside from the sinker of course, but he's shown movement away from that along with the rest of baseball. He still relies on the power and the deceiving nature of the off-speed matched with it. He does have the tools, and the fiery mentality one expects out of a reliever. Again, if he can not let it take control. Be more Jedi than Sith. Or maybe do be Sith, live in the fury. I’m not sure anymore. Disney muddles everything.
You just have to wonder about the actual results from what we've seen. He has a month to figure his life out, and more than likely come the playoffs he'll find his way back to the rotation. A good starter is more useful than a great reliever. Usually. Like with Miller though, Salazar has such an absurd pairing of top-end stuff that you just have to wonder what could be. It captures the imagination so to think of him screaming out of the 'pen in the seventh and locking down a three inning save. After all, he is the one who warmed up to "Wild Thing" when he came out of the bullpen earlier this year. As Oscar Wilde said, life imitates art. Maybe this time we just took a few decades to get around to it.