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I believe in Danny Salazar

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There was never much hope. Just a fool’s hope.

MLB: World Series-Chicago Cubs at Cleveland Indians Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

It doesn’t really matter how old you are or how long you’ve been following baseball. Inevitably, there will be a player who gets you excited about the game more than others. When your favorite player is a superstar, like Mike Trout or Francisco Lindor, it’s a bit easier since their on-field performance usually justifies the excitement felt by fans. At this point, if someone told me their favorite player was either of those two players (or any number of other veteran stars around the league), I would believe them.

For me, my first “favorite player” was Jason Kipnis. I didn’t really see him during his rookie season, but I saw him in 2012 when most of the rest of the Cleveland Indians were...how can I put this...well, Carlos Santana hand’t yet transitioned to a first baseman, a position that was manned by Casey Kotchman. In short, it wasn’t pretty. And by most standards, Kip didn’t have a great year either (.257/.335/.379, wRC+ 100). But there was something about Kip’s style of play and his level of effort that always stuck out to me. There were sparks of greatness here and there, but nothing consistent yet. He was young and had something to prove, and he sure as hell proved it in the following few years. I watched Kipnis transform from this fresh-faced rookie to a veteran leader on his team as he got older and his teammates got younger.

I (we) never got that with Danny Salazar.

If you look at the Jason Kipnis trajectory, you have three main phases: his younger phase (2011-2012), his prime phase (2013-2016), and his older phase (2017-present). Kip’s best years happened in that middle phase when he had gained enough experience in his first two seasons to make a sustained impact at the major league level. And the stats seem to back that up. He had both of his All-Star appearances during this phase (2013 and 2015), and three of his top four seasons by wRC+ (2013, 2015, 2016) were during this phase as well. Following the 2016 run, Kipnis started to decline and hasn’t really been the same since. Despite having been pretty good as of late, his overall numbers in 2019 are his worst to date. That’s not a knock on Kip, either; Father Time is undefeated. But to expect Kip to be the same player he was in 2013 or 2015 is probably unrealistic. Go on any Cleveland Indians online message board and you’ll probably start seeing a bunch of people calling for Kip to get cut from the team or worse. And it’s a bit sad that recency bias is causing folks to forget just how damn good Kipnis has been for most of the time he’s been with the Indians. But at least he had that prime phase where he was on top of the world.

I’m worried that Danny Salazar has missed that phase.

If it’s not obvious yet, Danny Salazar is my second “favorite player” after Kipnis. Looking back to before Salazar made his debut, folks were unsure about what the future held for the young RHP. Looking back at this very blog, you can find the old Prospects that Matter article from around this time. Here are a couple of entries for young Salazar:

RHSP Danny Salazar (Age 23, AAA) - promoted to AAA a month into the season, Salazar has returned to his former prominence after having Tommy Surgery a couple of years ago. His stuff is not in doubt, but he’ll need to show whether he has the durability to remain in the rotation. Even if that doesn’t work in, he’ll be a quality back-end reliever.

RHSP Danny Salazar (Age 23, AAA) - After Bauer, Salazar is the next high-level pitching prospect in the organization. He now has a mid-90s fastball, but he needs to prove that his breaking pitches are good enough to get outs, as well as put together a full season.

Exciting stuff, but nothing earth shattering. A lot of “he’s got the stuff, but can it translate/sustain itself” type questions surrounded Salazar’s debut. A little over a week later, we got to see firsthand what Danny Salazar had to offer when he made his MLB debut against the Blue Jays. Folks were excited, and rightly so. After all, in 2013, Corey Kluber had not yet turned into the Cy Young machine that he would eventually become, Zach McAllister was still in the starting rotation, and Brett Myers briefly had a spot on the roster and was awful. The Tribe pitching had not become the juggernaut we know today, but Salazar gave hope that we were trending in the right direction.

2015 and 2016 was the golden age for Danny Salazar. He logged 322.1 innings between those two seasons and racked up 356 strikeouts in the process. While his fireball was still a sight to be hold, his changeup was what really stole the show. He wasn’t just throwing hard and hoping for the best; he was mixing his pitches and fooling hitters. Observe:

FanGraphs

For more info on how good Danny Salazar was early on in his career, look no further than “The Devestation of Danny Salazar”. Injury robbed Danny (and fans) of this. An injury caused Salazar to be replaced on the All-Star team in 2016, his first year with those honors. The injury also kept him sidelined for big chunks of that season as well as the postseason (he only pitched 3.0 innings across 2 games in the World Series. Oh how things may have been different if the Tribe rotation hadn’t consisted of Corey Kluber, Josh Tomlin, and hope).

By 2017, when the injuries really started to pile up, the absence of Salazar wasn’t really noticed. Well, he was, but Salazar’s absence was less noticeable than before because now, the Tribe rotation was elite. Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer, and a starter in the middle of his breakout year (Mike Clevinger) headlined one of the best rotations in all of baseball. Add on to the fact that the Indians went on to win 102 games that year, and it’s no surprise that Danny Salazar just...was forgotten by a lot of people. He pitched that year, actually. 103.0 innings. As a huge Danny Salazar fan, I honestly forgot that he had logged so many innings because he wasn’t pitching consistently. He only made 2 appearances in June (out of the bullpen) and only 2 in July (as a starter).

2018 was a lost year. And Salazar was forgotten even more because of the revelation of Shane Bieber. Salazar logged no innings at the major league level or the minor league level. Most, understandably so, had given up on Salazar. It seemed like each injury was eventually replaced with a new one, culminating in a shoulder surgery that shut him down for the season.

At this point, do we even bother hoping he’ll be back? The Tribe FO thinks so, enough that they gave him a $4.5 million contract for 2019 after he hadn’t thrown a baseball in over a year. Why? Objectively speaking, that $4.5 million could have gone towards other players to fill other needs on the team (and we all know that there are areas of need). The only reason I can think is that Danny Salazar represents what is the best thing about baseball: hope. The hope that your team can, against all odds, be the David to another city’s Goliath and come out a champion. The hope that your team that struggled early on in the season can catch the new front runners in your division. The hope that a player you loved since they first stepped foot onto a baseball field can make a triumphant return and overcome all of the personal obstacles that have been thrown at them along the way.

If you’ve made it this far, I can only assume that you, too, have hope for Danny Salazar.