After showing glimpses of being a top-of-the-rotation starter over his previous two seasons, Cleveland right-hander Danny Salazar had the breakout season that he was believed to have in him during a 14-10 season in 2015 when he made 30 starts and posted a 3.45 ERA and 1.13 WHIP.
Last season, he became an All-Star for the first time while fighting through injuries that would ultimately end his regular season three weeks early and deprive him of several other outings over the course of the year, including an appearance on the mound in San Diego for the Midsummer Classic.
Now, Salazar, who turned 27 on Wednesday, will look to put together another All-Star season while working to remain a healthy and active contributor from the middle of the Indians rotation.
One of the biggest obstacles that the Indians had to overcome in the final portion of the 2016 schedule was the loss of Salazar, who had lingering arm issues throughout the season. The team attempted to manage those symptoms, skipping him starts, moving his place in the rotation, and holding him out of the All-Star Game and making him the last pitcher to start after the break, but come September, Salazar was shut down and was missing in action when the team entered the playoffs. Compounding his loss was the injury to number two starter Carlos Carrasco in September, which depleted the Indians rotation of two of its would-be starters for the playoffs while leaving the club in a compromising situation for a deep October push.
Thankfully, largely good results from Josh Tomlin and Trevor Bauer, coupled with a Cy Young caliber season from Corey Kluber, enabled Cleveland to take the World Series to extra innings in Game 7, but one can only wonder how different the results this postseason would have been had the Indians had their two-three combo of Carrasco and Salazar throwing against the dangerous Chicago Cubs lineup.
Salazar started the season with some unusual numbers on his stat sheet. In four starts, he allowed a total of six runs for a tiny 2.35 ERA and did so with just eleven hits allowed (no more than three in any one start). But while he struck out 26 batters to start the season, he also walked 13 in his 23 innings as he displayed the “effectively wild” pitching of some of his previous efforts in his career.
Those same results persisted some into May. He was 3-2 in the month in six starts with a 2.41 ERA. He struck out 46 batters in 37 1/3 innings, and he cut back on the walk rate by giving up 15 free passes. The bulk of them came in his lone no-decision of the month, when he struck out ten batters…but walked six…in five innings of a 5-3 loss to Houston on May 11.
He missed time at the beginning of June and was pushed back in the rotation, getting eight games between starts. Despite briefly dealing with shoulder fatigue, the results on the mound showed no signs of tiring as he went 5-0 with a 1.91 ERA and a .177 batting average against as he again walked 15 batters, but struck out 35 in 33 innings.
He was named to the All-Star team for his first half results (10-3, 2.75 ERA, and a 1.18 WHIP in 17 starts), but went into the break coming off of a season-high six runs allowed on eight hits against the New York Yankees on July 9. He was also dealing with elbow discomfort, which forced him to skip his appearance at the All-Star exhibition and the team opted to bring him out for the second half as the last starter to appear. His outing against the Yankees marked the second of three straight eight-hit games allowed by the right-hander, who had reversed course on the walk rate while watching batters make more contact.
He was tagged for six runs and a season-high three homers in his first start of August and landed on the disabled list on August 2 with right elbow inflammation. He returned on August 18, but he made a quick exit after a 34-pitch, three-run first inning against the Chicago White Sox. He allowed six runs for the third time on the year in a four-run outing in Oakland on August 23, but was a tough luck loser in his final start of the month despite matching a season-high with ten strikeouts against the Texas Rangers on August 28.
He bested that strikeout performance in one of his better games of the season, striking out eleven, walking two, and allowing a run on six hits in a no-decision against Miami in his next outing, but he allowed two home runs in four innings against Minnesota on September 9 in what would be the final start of his campaign as a strained right flexor muscle was due to sideline him for three to four weeks, bringing his regular season to a close with an 11-6 record, a 3.87 ERA, and a 1.34 WHIP. He struck out 161 and walked 63 in 137 1/3 innings of work.
He was still on the shelf as the Indians swept the Boston Red Sox in the ALDS and defeated the Toronto Blue Jays in the ALCS, but he was back on the roster for the club as the World Series began, working for the Tribe out of the bullpen.
He made his first postseason appearance since starting the AL Wild Card Game in 2013 when he took the mound in the sixth inning of Game 2 against the Cubs. He worked one inning and faced five batters. He pitched a scoreless inning, but did walk two batters while throwing just eight of 19 pitches for strikes.
In his next and final appearance of the 2016 season, he worked the fourth and fifth innings after the short outing of Tomlin in Game 6. He allowed a single, but was much more aggressive with the strike zone, throwing 20 of 28 pitches for strikes while striking out four Chicago hitters in the loss, ending his season on a positive personal note despite the negative end results for the club as a whole just one game later.
While Salazar enjoyed an All-Star season, the bigger tale existed in the numbers. Prior to suffering the first injury in June that cost him some time, he worked in 68 1/3 innings, posting a 2.24 ERA, a 1.13 WHIP, and a home run rate of just 0.5 per nine innings. He had a strong 10.7 strikeouts per nine, but his walk rate was unpleasant at 4.3 per nine.
Following that initial injury, Salazar pitched just 69 more innings in the regular season. His ERA in that span was 5.48 and his WHIP was 1.55. While his walk rate decreased some to 3.9, his strikeout rate inched back slightly to 10.4. Much more alarming, the home run rate more than tripled to 1.6 per nine.
After his 10-3 mark with a 2.75 ERA, a .204 batting average against, and a 1.18 WHIP in his 17 first half starts and 104 2/3 innings pitched, Salazar was just 1-3 with a 7.44 ERA, a .321 batting average against, and a 1.87 WHIP in eight second half outings and 32 2/3 innings of work.
The Indians effectively saw three different Salazars over the course of the season – the tough-to-hit one who provided low-hit, high-walk results; the aggressive-in-the-zone Salazar who issued hits and homers at a high rate and walks at a much more controlled number; and the injured one. Cleveland will need him to be healthy first and foremost in their defense of the American League pennant. More steady and less self-defeating efforts would go a long way in allowing the strong Indians starting pitching staff to help carry the team through the regular season and back to the postseason for its first consecutive playoff appearances since enjoying bonus baseball for five straight years from 1995 to 1999.
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