The Cleveland Indians‘ Danny Salazar appeared to have matured a lot in between his second and third start of the 2014 MLB season. Then the fifth inning happened. Through the first four, he discovered that success in pitching is not always correlated to the whiff rate of the competition.
In his first two starts, Salazar pitched a paltry combined 9.1 innings. During the course of those 9.1 IP, he faced a total of 43 batters. Of the 28 outs he recorded, 14 of them were by strikeout. In the second start specifically, it took Salazar 93 pitches to get through 3.2 innings, but he struck out 10 Chicago White Sox hitters in the process.
On Thursday afternoon at Comerica Park, Salazar’s adversary was a worthy one. Former AL MVP and Cy Young winner Justin Verlander took the ball for the Detroit Tigers, and Salazar again showed an inability to work deep into ballgames. Verlander was an impressive 54-21 in his career in day games, and it’s disappointing for fans of the Indians that Salazar could not deny Verlander the win earlier today.
The wheels came off for Salazar in the fifth inning. Before that, he was extremely efficient. His pitch count through the first four innings was 9-12-14-12. It appeared as though he was poised to showcase his true potential. Then he led the fifth inning off with consecutive walks to Alex Avila and Alex Gonzalez before Ian Kinsler took him deep on a full-count pitch. A single, a double and one more run ended Salazar’s day, eventually surrendering a 3-1 Indians lead through 4.2 IP. After slicing through the Tiger lineup like a hot knife through butter across his four innings with only 47 pitches, his 35-pitch two-thirds of a fifth inning was frustrating to watch.
In his July 2013 call-up as a rookie, Salazar impressed mightily by logging 52 IP across 10 starts, posting an ERA of 3.12 and a K/9 of 11.3. But again, those numbers show his inability to work late into ballgames and a reliance for premature assistance from the bullpen. Of his 10 regular season starts in 2013, Salazar worked into the seventh inning only once.
Today it looked as though Salazar would out-duel Verlander, who was yanked after five IP and throwing 113 pitches. With a very low pitch count in the fifth and his team up 3-1, Salazar’s tempo from the mound slowed down after giving up the back-to-back walks. The pitcher who initially looked like he bested Verlander on this day, did not. Ultimately, Salazar ended up with the loss after 4.2 IP, five ER, six H, three BB and three K.
The 24-year-old Salazar has the makings of something special. If he can learn to cool his nerves when he has to work with the lead and find efficient outs in the middle innings of ballgames, he could be a perennial All-Star candidate. But if Dwight Gooden did not battle substance abuse problems in his career, he might be in Cooperstown. And baseball — more than any other sport — is a game of many “ifs” and “mights.”