Danny Salazar: Potential Bullpen Ace

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Entering this past offseason there was some intrigue surrounding Cleveland Indians pitcher Zach McAllister and his ability to function as a high-end bullpen arm. With the awesomeness of Corey Kluber, the emergences of Carlos Carrasco and T.J. House, the potential of Trevor Bauer and Danny Salazar, and the signing of Gavin Floyd, it seemed that McAllister was destined in 2015 to reprise the bullpen role he flourished in towards the end of the 2014 season. Many people, myself included, thought the Indians might have a Wade Davis-type on their hands; a pitcher lacking the secondary offerings to perform as a league-average starter but could be one of the top relieves in the game when pitching out of the bullpen full time.

That scenario may still play out with Zach McAllister. His fastball-heavy outing on Friday certainly didn't help his case. The difference now is that the Indians may have another starting pitcher who along with McAllister is heading towards a bullpen role: Danny Salazar.

In no way does this mean that the Indians will or should convert Salazar to relief in the immediate future. His current place as the sixth or seventh starter is vitally important. The Indians aren’t going to get through this season using only five starters, and they probably aren’t going to get through it using just six either. Danny Salazar is going to play an important role for the Indians this year, even if that role is something along the lines of a half-season’s worth of league-average innings.

But long term, Salazar may be the Tribe starter whose future lies as a high-leverage reliever. The first indication this might be the case is simply Salazar’s size; he’s listed generously at six feet tall and 190 pounds on Baseball Reference. Being on the smaller side certainly doesn’t preclude a guy from being a great starting pitcher. The two pie-in-the-sky comps for Salazar might be Pedro Martinez and Johan Santana, and each had incredible careers despite being about the same size as Salazar.

But there are performance and durability questions for pitchers who are smaller in stature. It’s difficult for any pitcher to maintain a steady level of performance over 200 innings season to season, and that’s especially true for guys who don’t have the broad base in their lower half to help them. For a pitcher who is so reliant on velocity to generate strikeouts, there has to be questions as to whether Salazar will be able to maintain his velocity, and thus his effectiveness, from start to start and from season to season.

Perhaps the better reason why Salazar may eventually end up in the bullpen is the composition of his pitch arsenal. Last season Salazar threw his fastball about 76 percent of the time according to Fangraphs, with the remaining 24 percent of his pitches split evenly between his split-change and his slider. But those who watch Salazar can attest that his fastball is pretty straight. This is born out in Fangraphs’ Pitchf/x data, which says Salazar’s four-seam fastball was worth 5.3 runs above average in 2014, while those fastballs considered by the system to be two-seamers were worth -6.5 runs below average. Salazar also lacks a quality third pitch. His split-change was a great pitch in 2014 (2.4 runs above average) but his slider was essentially useless (-4.9 runs above average).

This is the type of arsenal that would really play up out of the bullpen. Much was made last season of Salazar losing some velocity off his fastball and how that affected his performance. This issue is mitigated if Salazar is in the bullpen, where he’ll be able to go all-out on every pitch rather than save some gas in the tank for later innings. His lack of an effective third pitch is also mitigated when he faces batters only once a game. Indians fans have seen how Cody Allen has excelled as a reliever with two excellent pitches, and that might be the roadmap the Indians eventually follow with Salazar.

This outcome wouldn’t be a disaster. It’s common knowledge now that teams are better off giving their pitchers every chance to function as a starting pitcher, but that doesn’t mean shutdown relievers are without value. Salazar could eventually become a relief ace along the lines of what Dellin Betances or Brad Boxberger did in2014. That’s not as valuable as being an effective starting pitcher, but it’s still really useful, especially in the hands of a manger like Terry Francona.

When the metrics confirm what the naked eye sees, it’s a pretty good indication that it’s the truth. It’s possible Salazar can improve his slider, or adjust his fastball variations to introduce more sink or cut movement. The Cleveland Indians are certainly the right organization to bring that sort of improvement out of him. But right now Salazar is a two-pitch pitcher who doesn’t have the prototypical size of a 200 inning starting pitcher, and that description is usually a synonym for reliever.
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