Indians Need More Salazar From 2016’s First Half

In 2016, there were two distinct versions of Cleveland starting pitcher Danny Salazar. This year’s Indians need the one that pitched in the first half of last season in order to get their season going in the right direction and accomplish their mission of  the ball club’s first World Series title in 69 years.

Salazar’s 2016 campaign, his fourth in the big leagues, got off to such a good start that he was named to his first All-Star squad. Soreness in his right forearm forced him to be spectator for the festivities in San Diego rather than a participant. That is really where his second half troubles began.

Before the Mid-Summer Classic, Salazar was brilliant, enjoying a breakout season. He had shown promise, with good numbers as a rookie in 2013 and then a promising 2015 campaign. However, he was hitting a special kind of level in helping the Indians be the surprise of baseball at the annual summer break.

His nod by American League manager Ned Yost was not really shocking, given a 10-3 record and 2.75 ERA before the All-Star break. Unfortunately for him, he started feeling pains in his pitching arm during his final outing of the season’s first half against the New York Yankees.

Cleveland management figured it would be a simple matter of Salazar just need to rest over the All-Star break and he would be fine when the regular season resumed. That seemed like sound reasoning, especially when Salazar came out of the break looking like his All-Star self. In six and two-thirds innings against Kansas City, he allowed two earned runs, striking out seven and walking one. He earned his 11th win of the year. It would prove to be his final good performance and last victory.

Salazar spent the next nearly two months complaining of arm soreness but trying to pitch through it. The Indians just thought it was normal pains of the season that all players go through. Salazar feared injury. He pitched seven games after his July 19th outing against the Royals, but was awful. In those appearances, he tossed 26 frames and allowed 25 earned runs. His ERA for those final showings was just a whisker under 9.00. It raised a once-sterling ERA to 3.87 for the season. He lost three of those contests, finishing with a more pedestrian 11-6 record compared to the gawdier one his blazing start to the year made him seem destined for.

Whether Salazar was really injured or just suffering from arm fatigue remains something of a mystery. However, the issue certainly messed with him and when he pitched, he pitched scared. That is never good for any pitcher to be in that frame of mind on the mound. The Indians, headed for the postseason, pulled the plug on his season after a disappointing September 9 outing. He had an injured right forearm at that point. He missed all but a couple relief outings in the World Series the remainder of the year.

Coming into spring training this year, Salazar was a major question mark in terms of where his mind and health would be at. So far, he appears to be both mentally and physically sound. That is great news for an Indians team that could really use him to be the dominant third starter behind Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco that he was pre-All-Star break last year.

In his first two games, Salazar has been mostly good. Perhaps shaking off some cobwebs in his first real start in almost seven months, Cleveland’s No. 3 starter was up and down on April 5 against the Texas Rangers. He surrendered four earned runs in five and two-thirds stanzas. However, he pitched well against everyone not named Nomar Mazara. Mazara had two hits, including a two-run home run and three RBI. Salazar stuck out nine. His biggest issue was with control, as he walked four Rangers batters. Overall, though, it was a good sign to see him get through the innings and have his unique ability to make batters swing and miss going.

In Salazar’s second out of this season, Wednesday against the White Sox, he was truly at his best. Despite taking a loss, he was absolutely on fire. He fanned 11 in six frames, walking only two. He gave up just two earned runs. The 11 Ks tied a career high. He was the victim of a lack of run support in a 2-1 defeat.

Over his initial two starts, Salazar is 0-1 with a 4.63 ERA. He has allowed six earned runs in 11 2/3 innings. The ERA should come down. Early in a season, one bad performance or even one bad inning can completely skew that number. What is important to note and see is the 20 strikeouts. He is fanning almost two batters per inning, which is quite impressive. The exact average is 15.4 strikeouts per nine inning, which leads the league.

Salazar’s career average for Ks per nine frames is a strong 10.2. Much like his ERA will go down, so too will the strikeout average. It would be nice to see his 10-game rookie season total of 11.3 in 2013. That is a possibility. If he is having that kind of strikeout success, wins will certainly follow.

Salazar is a guy who gets himself in trouble when he is not at his best. While he can strike people out with the best of them, he can be very wild. Cutting back to two walks in his second outing was imperative after the four free passes against the Rangers. His pitch count is going to be high with the strikeouts alone. He does not need to add to it with too many counts that go into a batter’s favor. His high walks rate, combine with high strikeouts rate is why Salazar has historically not been a pitcher to get beyond the sixth or seventh innings in many games. The Indians could use him consistently working deep into contests.

With No. 4 hurler Josh Tomlin off to a slow start and No. 5 starter Trevor Bauer maddeningly inconsistent, the Indians need 2016’s first half Salazar more than anything. Kluber will be ace-like, while Carrasco is already showing, given health, he is true No. 2 starter. To have Salazar pitching like he is capable is a key to the season. Salazar, through two starts, is showing he may be near that All-Star form. He is the difference between the Indians having a three-headed monster in the starting five with the ability to be as good as any in the game and the Indians having major question marks after the top two.

Salazar will get another shot Monday against the surprising Twins to show how close he is to the form that made him a 2016 All-Star and how close the team is to really being ready to turn the page on its so-so start to its AL championship defense and start reeling off a run of victories.

Photo: David Maxwell/Getty Images

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