The Indians rotation has lost Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir this offseason. Replacing those innings is going to be a challenge, and while the Indians seem fairly well equipped to handle those losses, but they’ll be relying on 2nd year pitcher Danny Salazar to demonstrate his durability. Salazar, who had Tommy John surgery in 2010, threw 145 innings last season between AA, AAA, and the Majors. Since he’s still ramping back up from his surgery, he’ll probably add another 40 or 50 innings to his total next season. He’ll likely throw more pitches per game this season as well, as the Indians were carefully monitoring him last season. This “unleashing” of Salazar could have an interesting impact on his season. If there are any doubters of Salazar’s durability, they’ll surely be looking to pounce on any sign of fatigue as the season progresses and Salazar racks up innings.
As far as scouting goes, Salazar has everything you could want in a pitcher, except perhaps size. He’s listed at 6 feet exactly, which obviously isn’t short, but when you’re looking for downward plane on a fastball every inch counts. That lack of size probably contributes to the questions about his durability. All data about Salazar in the majors last year is qualified by the fact that he only threw 52 innings over 11 starts, but he still impressed. His fastball, which he threw 64.14% of the time in 2013, averaged 96.24 mph. That’s some serious heat. He pairs that with a slider and a splitter, both of which are good pitches. His splitter missed an astonishing 22.02% of swings, and his slider missed an impressive 16.51%. Even his fastball missed 13.98%. Among starting pitchers with more than 50 innings last season, Salazar’s 14.6 swinging strike percentage ranks 1st in the Majors. However, this needs to be qualified by saying that had Salazar thrown more innings, his percentages likely would have gone down. You can’t expect a pitcher to continue to strike out 30% of batters he faces. All the same, he seems to have the stuff to miss bats, and should continue to do so at an strong rate.
Here are some statistics about Salazar’s time in the Majors last season:
- 52 IP, 11.25 K/9, 2.6 BB/9, 1.21 HR/9, 83.3 LOB%, 34.4 GB%, 13.7 HR/FB, 3.12 ERA, 3.16 FIP, 2.75 xFIP
There are a lot of takeaways from that simple line of data. First, Salazar strikes a ton of people out. I already wrote that. I just wanted to take the opportunity to write it again, because that’s a huge number of strikeouts. Even with that strikeout rate though, he doesn’t seem to have the control problems that can plague other hard throwers. What he does have however, is a potential to seem homer prone. Giving up more than one home run per 9 innings, Salazar could have just been unlucky last season, with more balls finding their ways to the seats than he deserved, or it could be a side affect of his height or something completely unrelated. His 34.4 GB% (in a small sample size again), indicates that he’ll give up more fly balls, and likely more home runs, than the league average pitcher. xFIP, which normalizes a pitchers home run rate to league average under the assumption that pitchers cannot control home runs, and so a pitcher who gives up more than a normal amount of home runs was unlucky. I disagree with that slightly, because a pitcher who gives up a greater number of fly balls will likely give up a greater number of home runs. Even with that, Salazar’s ground ball percentage could be, and probably is, a sample size fluke. It’s absolutely something to keep an eye on in his first full year in the majors. Another thing to keep an eye on are his breaking pitches. The reason some scouts project Salazar to end up in the bullpen is that they aren’t sold on his slider as a solid 3rd pitch, and a pitcher with only two plus pitches could be in for a rough time once the league adjusts to him. I like Salazar’s slider though, and I think he could succeed in a major league rotation. Even if his strikeouts go down, there’s likely to be some increase in his GB% and a corresponding decrease in his HR%. That could make the difference between high strikeout/high leverage reliever, and a starter who can be effective over a full season.
So, aside from the obvious durability questions and the lack of a third pitch, why shouldn’t the Indians look to extend Salazar? Easily enough, it’s because he’s 24. He just finished his first year in the majors. The team will control Salazar at the minimum salary through 2015, and he’ll only reach free agency after the 2018 season. This means Salazar will be 29 when he reaches free agency. At this point, if I was in the position of the Indians, I’d be looking for more data before committing to an extension. Salazar could be fantastic, but he could just as easily flame out. That doesn’t seem like the type of player the Indians should be guaranteeing money to just yet. There is a chance that Salazar could put up a fantastic 2014 season and see his price raise dramatically, but if the cost of extending him gets too high, the Indians will get their six years and that’ll be it. They’ll miss out on the chance of Salazar’s age 29 and age 30 seasons (if the contract were to extend that far), but if he turns into a reliever they won’t be paying starting pitching free agent rates for a reliever. So while Salazar would be an interesting extension candidate, it serves the team better to wait to see how his arm holds up over the course of a full season.