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Danny Salazar, the Most Fun Thrower in the Indian's Rotation

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Back in 2013 when the Cleveland Indians last made the playoffs, they did so as the top American League Wild Card winner. Which meant, in the new aligned format, that they'd have to play a one game showdown just to get the opportunity to play a best-of-five series against one of the division winners.

We remember they lost that game, of course we do, to the Tampa Bay Rays, and what was a sizzling finish to the season ended in a drama-sucked flare out. Cold water thrown promptly on the flame that was lit. You probably remember things like Nick Swisher going 0-for-4 with a pair of strikeouts, Justin Masterson coming out of the pen due to a late season injury, a packed Progressive Field, and Jason Kipnis and Michael Brantley taking the loss really hard in the dugout.

And you probably remember that Danny Salazar started that game. And if you didn't, even better to my point, Danny Salazar started that game. In 2016, hearing that, you're like, oh yeah of course he did.

Back in 2013 though? Slow down. Let's remember that Salazar was a fresh-faced rookie at just 23 with just 10 major league starts under his belt. Dude wasn't even ripe,- and he's out in the most important game of the season. He took the loss, didn't pitch deep into the game, but he did give his team a chance.

We don't really know anything. We think we do, until we are proven wrong, and even then, we still think we know. The thing about Salazar for awhile, especially after that, was that great minds*¹ thought he was a bullpen arm. That guy, only pitching one inning of a game, totally somewhere around 60-70 innings a season, instead of 200. Danny Salazar's blazing fastball that sticks around 96-98 even late in the game, just being used for one frame against three hitters, instead of an entire lineup multiple times.

I think there might be a few people who've misplaced their rocking chair out there in regards to this still, however, let me put it this way.

No. Just, no.

One of the best parts of watching baseball to me is watching a good pitcher pitching well, and pitching smart. It's my intrigue with Trevor Bauer in how he approaches and goes about his business. I love a well executed game plan and trying to sit and analyze what's coming based off a situation, a count, a batter's tendencies, or just what a pitcher is prone to throw.

And one of the best parts of 2016 is Danny Salazar starting to figure out how to pitch beyond rearing back, throwing his best pure stuff and getting hitters out on his given ability to throw his fastball and breaking pitches, and the hitters not being able to do a damn thing about it. He's not all the way there, and in fact probably has the most out of the five starters the Indians have to go in terms of "putting it together," and learning how to be more of a pitcher than a thrower.

Shoot, it took CC Sabathia a few years to do it and when you have the stuff Salazar has, or the stuff that CC had in his early years with the Tribe, it can take you a few years of living off your fastball before you have to buckle down and be precise in location and learn how to execute a game plan. Salazar hasn't really been humbled by not being successful with what has made him successful, so he hasn't had a need to learn and adapt. Make no mistake about it though, Salazar is climbing that ladder and this year he has ascended the most rungs to date.

To break it down a little further, this year, Salazar is sitting right around 70 percent in terms of his fastball usage. That's down about six percent from 2014 and right in line with last year. He's relying less on his slider this year than then, but also more than last year. The change is with his change up, where he's decreased use from last year, but of course, dramatically spiked it from a few years ago. It appears he's found the balance he needs, but it goes a little further.

The one problem though? While his strikeout rate is up, his walk rate is too. Which is fine based off the results, but also not sustainable. Unless of course Salazar is getting other different results elsewhere. Look towards the ground ball rate for that. He's actually sitting much higher than he was last year on his ground ball percentage, so while he's striking out more, he's also getting more ground balls (less in the air, less line drives), which means he's using that infield defense a little more. And how could he not? It's infinitely better than what was at defense last year.

Not to mention, a big result of more grounders and less fly balls? Less home runs. He gave up 13 in 20 starts in 2014 and 23 in 30 starts in 2015. This year? He's only at nine surrendered, good enough for a HR/9 rate of 0.73, which is down considerably from last year and puts him right around a rate that his teammate, Corey Kluber, carries. Kluber has always been a pitcher who has kept hitters in the park because he misses so many bats and this year is no different. Salazar can afford to walk a few more if he's getting more ground balls and giving up less home runs.

You'd like to see him walk less so he can throw more pitches, and go deeper into games, but what he's doing is working. And to me? It's fun to watch. It absolutely makes for the most entertaining pitcher on the Indians staff.

Danny Salazar, for my money, has the best pure stuff on the team. As he continues to learn to harness said stuff, and be a smarter pitcher, he's quickly going to become the best. Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco are better pitchers, more refined, smarter, and yet still possess very good stuff.

Going back to us thinking we know everything, I was on board with Salazar leaping his rotation mates this year if he could get it to click and being the one to contend for a Cy Young over them. Look, we still have half a season to play and some numbers might shuffle and maybe Danny fights a little regression.

But there's no question he is quickly becoming the most fun pitcher to watch on this staff. Corey Kluber is great and is capable of magic every time out. Carlos Carrasco is quietly one of the best starters in the entire American League. You can blame injuries and what-not for him not getting more just-due, maybe he's overshadowed a bit by his Cy Young teammate as well, but he's damn good.

Josh Tomlin is pretty fun to watch too in his own right, because there's something exciting about an unexciting fastball making Major Leaguers frustrated to no end.

As much as I love Trevor Bauer, and seriously, the love is up towards creepy levels there, I love watching Danny Salazar the most.  He's evolving into a pitcher, and he's scary good already as a thrower. He's improving on some of his faults, and as he is starts to move past some of the things that slow him down, like not getting out of jams or compounding situations, he's only going to get better. That used to be one of Carrasco's problems (and people wanted him in the bullpen too*², and actually got that for awhile) and again, he's now one of the best around.

2016 might not be totally the year of Danny Salazar, but it has definitely been a noticeable turning point for him in his career when he started putting things together. And the fun part is there's still more left to this year for him to make some leaps. There's no telling what beyond 2016 has in store as he continues to take greater leaps.

The fun part? He and Bauer haven't even hit their prime ages. What is now Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco flanked by Danny Salazar and Trevor Bauer may soon be Danny Salazar and Trevor Bauer flanked by cagey veterans Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco. And wouldn't that be fun?

Even more fun? Him starting Game One of the World Series at Progressive Field, rather than a Wild Card game, and going seven innings instead of four.


Follow Nino on Twitter @SnarkyNino.

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¹ - These were not great minds, this was plain use of sarcasm.
² - I was probably one of these morons.
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