Orbiting Cleveland: The growth of a pitching prospect
Danny Salazar has emerged as the Indians' top pitching prospect in years
Years ago, Baseball Prospectus coined the acronym, TINSTAAPP. While it never garnered the attention of more popular acronyms, it appropriately stands for “There is no such thing as a pitching prospect.”
While it’s clearly nothing more than a cliché, this unfortunately has been pretty much true for the Cleveland Indians in recent years.
Can you believe it was just over five years ago that the Indians were blessed with having back-to-back Cy Young Award winners in left-handers C.C. Sabathia and Cliff Lee? It seems as if it was almost an eternity ago.
Since then, the Indians have seen a handful of young pitching prospects come and go, and not one of them has ever really cemented himself as an ace.
Even other top pitching prospects that were considered more sure things have been less than stellar. For evidence, look no further than Carlos Carrasco and Trevor Bauer, who continue to toil at the Triple-A level even though their stuff and résumés suggest they should already be establishing themselves as Major League contributors.
Bauer and Carrasco were the heralded arms that were expected to contribute at the Major League level this season, yet both have been incredibly underwhelming.
Bauer is still 22, so there’s time for him to figure it out, but it’s hard to be encouraged by what we’ve seen so far. Carrasco, on the other hand, has been stuck at the Triple-A level since 2008 when he was still with the Philadelphia Phillies, and he's never been able to stick in the Majors. He’s now 26, and it seems unlikely that he’ll become a fixture in the Indians rotation anytime soon.
TINSTAAPP. It’s starting to make sense, right?
Of course, every so often, a pitching prospect comes out of seemingly nowhere, and that’s exactly been the case for right-hander Danny Salazar.
Most of us are probably still not over Salazar’s electrifying start Wednesday against the Detroit Tigers. While he did not earn the win and could have very well qualified for the loss, there was just something special about watching Salazar carve hitters up like it was the Christmas ham.
For Tribe fans, it was one of those definitive moments that you won’t soon forget. There was just an indescribable, sublime pleasure that came from watching Salazar light up the radar gun at 100 mph. A pitcher who can hit triple digits with his fastball but also command that fastball is a rare commodity, and that description fits Salazar to a T.
The remarkable thing is that Salazar’s rise to prominence was not exactly expected. He has never been regarded as a prospect in the way that Carrasco, Bauer, Knapp or Miller were. In fact, he’s never even cracked Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospects List. Yet, he now stands as arguably the team’s top homegrown pitching prospect since C.C. Sabathia. How in the heck did that happen?
The progression of Salazar from organizational unknown to pitching phenom is not without its bumps across the road. The Dominican right-hander was originally signed by the Indians in July 2006 at just 16 years of age, and he's certainly had his ups and downs since that point.
He made his professional debut in 2007 as a 17-year-old in the Dominican Summer League, and the results were encouraging as he went 5-3 with a 1.96 ERA in 14 starts. But let’s just say he wasn’t exactly lighting up the radar gun yet. As the IBI’s Tony Lastoria said in the 2008 edition of his 2008 Cleveland Indians: Top 50 Prospects & More book:
“Salazar was the most consistent of the DSL starting pitchers this year. He had good movement on his high 80s fastball and flashed a good breaking ball in the instructional league, with his participation being a sign the Indians consider him a good prospect. He should also open the year in extended spring training before making his stateside debut with the rookie level Gulf Coast League Indians.”
Salazar showed signs of potential, but even as a 17-year-old with growth, it’s hard to believe that anyone could have fathomed that his high-80s fastball would one day reach triple digits.
Salazar continued to develop over the next couple years, but it’s hard to say he ever really looked to be anything more than a young pitcher who might one day be able to contribute at the Major League level.
In 2008, in his stateside debut with the Gulf Coast Indians, Salazar posted a 2.87 ERA in 11 starts while striking out 7.3 batters per nine. He was then promoted to Single-A Lake County the next season where he went 5-7 with a 4.44 ERA in 107 1/3 innings.
The numbers were fine considering that Salazar was merely 19 at the time, but his strikeouts also decreased as he was punching out just 5.5 batters per nine innings.
In 2010, Salazar only made eight starts before the wheels fell off. In May of that year, he suffered a right elbow sprain. While he probably did not know it at the time, the injury may have actually been a blessing in disguise.
Salazar opted for Tommy John surgery after the injury, and it’s been quite the ride ever since.
After a long road to recovery, Salazar returned to the mound for 14 1/3 innings between the AZL Indians and Lake County in 2011 where he posted a 3.07 ERA and struck out 11 batters per nine innings.
It was a small sample size but an impressionable one — the Indians made the decision to add him to the 40-man roster following the season.
The most notable difference with Salazar was his velocity. Prior to having Tommy John surgery, he would sit between 89 and 92 miles per hour while topping out at 94. After the surgery was a different story though. Salazar’s fastball could sit mid-90s and even touch 98 mph. Salazar always had potential because of his superb command, but this increased velocity really helped his stock grow.
Finally, it appeared as if Salazar had gone from an organizational unknown to a legitimate prospect. While the national media had yet to give him attention, it was evident that the Indians front office clearly felt highly of the Dominican right-hander.
That was for good reason, too.
In 2012, between High-A Carolina and Double-A Akron, Salazar posted a 2.36 ERA in 87 2/3 innings of work and struck out 7.8 batters per nine innings. Until the acquisition of Bauer in the offseason, it was a well-known fact that Salazar had cemented himself as the team’s top starting pitching prospect. His rise could not be any more improbable, which only made it that much more impressive.
For reference, take a look at his rankings over the year’s by Lastoria here at IBI:
- 2008: Unranked
- 2009: 45
- 2010: 33
- 2011: 78
- 2012: 38
- 2013: 5
There is probably no other Indians player that had a more meteoric rise during that same time period.
While Salazar entered the 2013 season as the Tribe’s number two pitching prospect, it’s clear that he has now claimed the top distinction from Bauer. Salazar’s 2013 minor league season has been a colossal success as he’s struck out 12.5 batters per nine innings and posted a 2.71 ERA in 21 games between Akron and Columbus.
Yes, the numbers do suggest that Salazar has ace potential, but so do the eyes. Just watch the kid throw — there’s no doubt that he passes the eye test.
While he garnered plenty of attention by IBI and other organizations that cover the Indians, Salazar has flown under the radar in regard to national media coverage as neither Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus or MLB.com have ever ranked him among their top 100 prospects.
Ironically enough, the Indians have had a handful of starting pitchers crack the top 100 prospect lists in recent years, yet none of them have ever left a first impression quite like Salazar.
Below are some of the top pitching prospects that the Indians have had over the past decade or so. The player’s top ranking by Baseball America is placed next to his name in parentheses, and then the statistics from each of his first two Major League starts are listed.
C.C. Sabathia (No. 7 – 2001)
- April 8, 2011: ND, 5.2 IP, 3 H, 3 R/ER, 2 BB, 3 K, 1 HR
- April 13, 2011: W, 5 IP, 5 H, 4 R/ER, 2 BB, 2 K
Cliff Lee (No. 30 – 2003)
- September 15, 2002: L, 5.1 IP, 2 H, 1 R/ER, 4 BB, 4 K
- September 21, 2002: ND, 5 IP, 4 H, 1 R/ER, 4 BB, 2 K
Adam Miller (No. 16 – 2005)
- NEVER PLAYED IN MAJORS
Fausto Carmona (No. 76 – 2004)
- April 15, 2006: W, 6 IP, 5 H, 1 R/ER, 2 BB, 4 K
- April 20, 2006: L, 5.1 IP, 8 H, 8 R/ER, 3 BB, 1 K, 2 HR
Jeremy Sowers (No. 53 – 2006)
- June 25, 2006: L, 5 IP, 5 H, 4 R/ER, 1 BB, 3 K
- July 3, 2006: W, 7 IP, 6 H, 2 R/ER, 1 BB, 4 K
Carlos Carrasco (No. 41 – 2007)
- September 1, 2009: L, 3 IP, 9 H, 6 R/ER, 3 BB, 3 K, 3 HR
- September 8, 2009: ND, 5 IP, 8 H, 5 R/ER, 3 BB, 4 K, 2 HR
Jason Knapp (No. 64 – 2010)
- NEVER PLAYED IN MAJORS
Alex White (No. 47 – 2011)
- April 30, 2011: ND, 6 IP, 6 H, 2 R/ER, 4 BB, 4 K, 2 HR
- May 7, 2011: W, 6 IP, 7 H, 3 R/ER, 2 BB, 6 K
Drew Pomeranz (No. 30 – 2012)
- NEVER PLAYED WITH INDIANS
Trevor Bauer (No. 9 – 2012)
- April 6, 2013: L, 5 IP, 2 H, 3 R/ER, 7 BB, 2 K, 1 HR
- May 1, 2013: W, 5 IP, 1 H, 6 BB, 5 K
So, after taking a look at the numbers for previous Indians top pitching prospects, let’s now take a look at Salazar’s first two starts:
- July 11, 2013: W, 6 IP, 2 H, 1 R/ER, 1 BB, 7 K
- August 7, 2013: ND, 7.2 IP, 7 H, 4 R/ER, 1 BB, 10 K
Judging by the numbers, it seems obvious that no Indians pitching prospect in recent memory has had a better start to his career than Salazar. Two games is an incredibly small sample size, but that small sample size has left a very large impression.
Over the past couple years, Salazar has shown that he could be a part of the Indians’ plans for years to come, and it’s not a stretch to say that he could indeed be the best homegrown pitching prospect since Sabathia. While he has not yet crack any of the major top 100 lists, it's easy to conclude that he'll probably find himself on those lists following this season.
Teams covet an ace because they want a guy who will be able to reach back and record the strikeout to get out of tough jams. Salazar clearly can punch out his plenty of batters as just take a look at how his K/9 rate has rose since he’s come back from Tommy John surgery:
Those strikeouts become even more impressive when you realize that Salaze barely ever walks batters. For his career, Salazar has walked just 2.6 batters per nine innings, and that number is trending downward as of late. With power arms, one of the main concerns is always command, yet that is already an area where Salazar excels.
Of course, Salazar is still not without his questions marks. He is six-feet tall and does weigh only 180 pounds, so there is always going to be fear that his body may not hold up.
Also, while his fastball and changeup are both plus offerings, his slider remains a work in progress, and he will need to continue to develop that as well as another possible other secondary offering as he progresses in his career.
Finally, two games are just that — two games. Regardless of how impressive Salazar looked, it’s hard to draw any hard conclusions after just two Major League starts.
However, the starts were also two dynamic starts that no Tribe fan is going to forget anytime soon.
Given the evidence, it's safe to say that no one will soon be forgetting about Salazar either.
Steve can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hopefully some combination of Masterson, McAllister, Kluber, Salazar, Bauer, and Carrasco will form that "wave" of great starting pitchers like we last had with McDowell, Tiant, Hargan, and Siebert nearly 50 years ago.
If Salazar had developed the same way and wouldn't have been in this organization, that probably would have been a bigger punch to the stomach than the four-game sweep to the Tigers, as this organization has had major trouble developing aces and frontline starters. Losing one like that would have been a devastating blow. Just read an article on how the Tigers' organization still regrets the Smoltz-Alexander trade, a factor that helped to keep the Tigers out of contention for nearly 20 years; all the more reason why the Indians' front office deserve kudos for deciding to protect Salazar when they did.
Now, let's just hope Salazar stays healthy and continues to develop. If both occur, outer space is the limit. :-)