Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 31 – Danny Salazar

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Countdown to Opening Day – 31

The Cleveland Indians saw two different versions of starting pitcher Danny Salazar in 2016. Their chances of repeating as American League champions will require more of the results from the first half of last season’s campaign than those posted by him in the second.

Salazar entered his age 26 season coming off of the best season of his young career, one that began with a return trip to Triple-A Columbus after lackluster results during spring training. The message was heard, as after six scoreless innings with the Clippers, he returned to Cleveland and went 14-10 the rest of the way with a 3.45 ERA, a 1.13 WHIP, and 195 strikeouts over 185 innings in 30 starts.

Slotted in as the number three man in the starting rotation behind Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco, big things were expected of Salazar and he lived up to those expectations, although early on, some strange trends appeared in his stat lines.

Jason Miller/Getty Images
Jason Miller/Getty Images

Through his first 14 starts of the season, Salazar bordered on being unhittable. He allowed more than five hits in just two of those outings and he limited the opposition to two runs or less in eleven of those appearances. But in addition to racking up some big strikeout numbers, including ten in Houston on May 11, he was walking 4.48 batters per nine innings, 1.78 more per nine innings than his career average coming in to the year. Just five times in that span did he issue two walks or less and in six of the games, he failed to complete six innings on the mound in large part due to his elevated pitch count.

With the increased walk rate also came an elevated strikeout rate, as his 10.3 strikeouts per nine was also in excess of his previous 9.9 rate from 2013 through 2015. It may have been a case of being effectively wild, but Salazar was able to minimize the self-inflicted damage of too many walks and was 9-3 through those starts with a 2.40 ERA and a 1.15 WHIP.

The training staff was keeping a watchful eye on Salazar as June began and the team elected to give him several extra days off in between his first and second start of the month as he was said to be battling shoulder fatigue. The additional rest seemed to do him some good, as on June 29, he won his tenth game and did so with some important zeroes on his stat sheet. He blanked the Atlanta Braves over seven innings and did not give up a single free base runner while allowing just five hits in total.

The final three months of the season went in a different direction for Salazar.

The unofficial second half of the season started positively with the news that he had been selected to participate in the All-Star Game in San Diego, but in his final start before the break, he was blasted for six runs on eight hits in five and two-thirds innings in a no-decision against New York. He skipped the Midsummer Classic to rest his arm and was the last pitcher to debut in the second half, giving him plenty of time to recuperate.

It may have helped, if but for a moment. He allowed just two earned runs in his first start back over six and two-thirds innings against the Kansas City Royals, walking one and striking out seven to earn his eleventh win. It would be his last appearance in the win column for the rest of the season, however.

He went just four-plus innings his next time out against Washington on July 26, throwing 85 pitches. On August 1, he was tagged for six runs (including three home runs) in just two-plus innings in a loss at home against the Minnesota Twins and landed on the disabled list with right elbow inflammation.

He returned on August 18 against the Chicago White Sox, but gave up three runs on one hit and three walks in a 34-pitch, one-inning start. He was charged with six more runs in another loss on August 23 in a four-inning appearance.

Rob Tringali/Getty Images
Rob Tringali/Getty Images

He started to look a little more like the Salazar of old in his final start of the month, as he struck out ten and allowed just two runs while pitching into the sixth inning in a tough 2-1 loss. He followed it with his third double-digit strikeout performance of the season in his next outing on September 4, giving up just one run over five and two-thirds innings, but his year would come to an early close after going four innings against the Twins on September 9, allowing four runs (three earned) with two more homers surrendered. Injury concerns again swirled around Salazar and it was announced that he had strained the right flexor muscle in his throwing arm and would be sidelined for three to four weeks. It held him out of each of the first two rounds of the playoffs and, unable to get stretched back out to starters’ innings, he made two relief appearances in the Game 2 and Game 6 losses to the Chicago Cubs, working three innings of one-run baseball with a pair of walks and four strikeouts.

Salazar made his second start of the spring on Thursday, pitching two innings against the Los Angeles Dodgers. He allowed a run on one hit and struck out two, but issued three free passes while throwing just half of his pitches on the afternoon for strikes.

“I was a little bit up,” Salazar shared with following the game. “My arm is a little bit slow still, but I think we’ve got time to catch it.”

“Command is still a little bit of an issue,” said manager Terry Francona of Salazar’s second start of the spring. “But, he looks healthy and he’s letting it go. Again, with some repetition, the hope is that when he starts working ahead, and then, when he has that fastball with that velocity, he’ll be a lot more effective. I think as he knows that he’s okay, you’ll see the confidence return and with that you’ll see things fall into place. The best thing for him right now is repetition with health.”

Salazar worked two innings on February 26 against the Chicago Cubs, giving up a hit and a walk while striking out three in his spring debut.

The Indians will be counting on Salazar in the middle of the rotation to boast All-Star like numbers again in 2017 as the team looks to defend its AL title. It will all start with a good spring that gives Salazar the confidence that he is healthy and ready to go for a full season of work.

Other notable 31’s in Indians historySatchel Paige (1948), Jim Busby (1956-57), Steve Olin (1990-92), Dave Winfield (1995), Chuck Finley (2000-02), Brian Anderson (2003), Cliff Lee (2005-09)

Photo: Jason O. Watson/Getty Images

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