Danny Salazar hasn't been any good this season. With a 5.50 ERA in 52 1/3 innings, there's no point in sugar-coating it, or trying to find a silver lining to this cloud.
The Indians acknowledged as much this weekend, sending Salazar to the bullpen following another subpar outing, this time after a six-hit, five-walk performance against the Royals on Saturday. And this isn't just a bit of bad luck Salazar is dealing with either. His 4.69 FIP suggests he really has been close to this bad.
Given his struggles and his new role – one in which he is almost assuredly not going to see any save opportunities, given the presence of Cody Allen and Andrew Miller – it's fair for Fantasy players to consider whether they should drop Salazar. I think that would be a mistake for a few reasons.
For one, there's no reason to think this demotion for Salazar is permanent. It could be, but that requires a couple of assumptions that aren't necessarily strong bets. First, you have to assume that Salazar will continue to pitch this poorly – we'll address that one shortly. Secondly, you have to assume the Indians won't eventually have a need for Salazar in the rotation before long.
It's the second one that is harder to see. Obviously, it depends on Salazar getting right, but with the attrition rate for pitchers, a need will arrive. We've already seen multiple injury scares with Carlos Carrasco, and Corey Kluber is only just coming back from his own absence from an injury. Josh Tomlin has hardly pitched well enough to keep a long-term spot, and Mike Clevinger hardly has the track record you would expect of a rotation mainstay. Everyone but Carrasco and Clevinger has an ERA over 5.00, there aren't any true stumbling blocks to Salazar getting back into the rotation.
So it's up to Salazar to get right. Indians manager Terry Francona said as much when discussing Salazar in recent days.
"He's not being banished to the bullpen," Francona said. "We explained everything to him, why and what we're trying to achieve. He'll throw a bullpen [Monday] and we'll get him back on the road to carving people up."
Salazar is expected to be eligible to pitch out of the bullpen as early as Wednesday. The question is, what needs to be fixed for him? When you look at his line, two things stand out immediately: a career high 11.9 percent walk rate, and a career-high 1.89 HR/9. Are these problems fixable?
I think so. The control may be an easier fix, especially because there is no real explanation for his struggles in that regard so far. Salazar is throwing fewer pitches in the strike zone (down from 48.2 percent last season to 45.8 this season, per PITCHf/x), however that rate isn't so low as to be alarming. And, with an increased swing rate of 49.0 percent combined with the lowest contact rate of his career, it makes sense to assume some improvement in control moving forward anyway. He is inducing more swings on pitches out of the strike zone than he did last season to boot, all of which points to the conclusion that his walk rate should improve at least some.
The bigger issue might be the home runs. Salazar has always had trouble keeping the ball in the yard, but that trend has been exacerbated this season. His HR/FB rate has jumped to 22.9 percent, which might indicate a bit of bad luck, however his groundball rate has also collapsed, from 47.8 percent a year ago to 37.4 percent this season.
It's hard to find a simple explanation for this problem. Salazar is throwing his fastball less than ever, with his changeup usage rate up to a career-high 29.2 percent. That changeup has long been a devastating swing-and-miss pitch, and it seems reasonable to think he is perhaps overusing it this season, and the results are still good this season: a .218 batting average, .081 ISO, 25.5 percent whiff rate. On the surface, this doesn't seem to be a case of too much of a good thing.
Instead, 10 of his 12 homers have come via the fastball, and it's fair to wonder if the increased changeup usage is simply the result of him not feeling as confident in the fastball rather than a pre-planned decision. Maybe Salazar just needs to find the feel for his fastball, or tweak something in his mechanics to help keep the fastball down.
I would expect Salazar to figure this out. He's too talented, and the Indians can't reasonably expect to reach their ceiling with him pitching in the bullpen. The skill is still there with a fastball that easily reaches the upper 90's and that unhittable changeup, so it's probably just a matter of time before he figures it out.
In fact, Salazar may get another chance in the rotation sooner than you think. The Indians play in an NL park next week in Colorado, and if Corey Kluber's turn in the rotation comes up, they will likely turn to Salazar in an effort to keep Kluber away from the basepaths coming off his injury.
If we told you Salazar was going to go on the DL for 10 days with a minor injury, you wouldn't drop him, right? View this the same way. With the pitching landscape so bad these days, you can't drop someone with Salazar's upside, especially with a clear path back to the rotation in his future.