Salazar, Strasburg, and Innings Limits
Originally posted to isportstimes.com on February 28, 2014
Prior to the 2012 season, the Washington Nationals decided they were going to limit Stephen Strasburg’s innings regardless of their place in the standings when August rolled around. They did this because Strasburg had undergone Tommy John surgery in 2010 and had thrown a grand total of 92 major league innings across 2010 and 2011.
But let’s be clear: the Nationals did not limit Stephen Strasburg’s innings out of some altruistic desire to see him develop and flourish as a starting pitcher. The Nationals decided to curtail Strasburg’s innings because they view him as a potential ace for the next decade. It was a simple risk-reward proposition; the Nationals gambled that the risk of missing Strasburg’s arm during the 2012 playoffs was worth the potential reward of having a healthy Strasburg leading the rotation for the next ten years. The Nationals’ front office made the decision they thought was best for them. The fact that they may have been safeguarding Strasburg’s future was only a side effect.
While the Nationals managed to overcome the loss of Strasburg in mid-August to win 98 games and an NL Central title, they eventually crashed out of the playoffs, falling to the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLDS. They did not make the playoffs in 2013.
The Cleveland Indians are fortunate enough to have their own phenom fireballer heading into 2014. Danny Salazar opened many eyes last season with his high-90’s heater, devastating changeup (Brook’s Baseball qualifies it as a splitter), and cool demeanor on the mound. The hope among Tribe fans and the front office alike is that Salazar can combine with Justin Masterson and Corey Kluber at the top of the rotation to propel the Indians to their second playoff appearance in as many years.
The only problem is those pesky innings. Salazar, who like Strasburg already has a Tommy John surgery to his name, managed to throw only 145 innings across all levels in 2013. Going by the previously-debunked Verducci Effect, a thirty inning jump for Salazar would put him at 175 innings, enough to get him through a good chunk of September, depending on how he is handled during games (more on that in a bit).
However, there is one key difference between the Strasburg and Salazar situations. When the Nationals shut down Strasburg prior to the 2012 playoffs, they did so knowing they have the financial wherewithal to sign him to the kind of contract that will keep him in D.C. for the entirety of his prime. The Indians, suffice to say, don’t have that luxury. Salazar is under team control through the 2019 season, at which point he will do what all great players wearing a block-C on their cap do and leave for the best contract offer he receives. The more likely scenario, if Salazar is as good as everyone thinks he is going to be, is that the Indians deal him sometime after the 2017 season, right when he is about to get expensive in arbitration but still far enough from free agency to bring back a nice prospect haul.
So whereas the Nationals were protecting a future investment in Strasburg for the next 10 to 15 years, the Indians would only be protecting a investment in Salazar for the next three or four years. I’m sure whichever team receives Salazar in a trade or through free agency will be thankful the Indians did all they could to protect his arm, but the Indians are limited in the potential benefit they will receive by limiting Salazar’s innings in 2014.
Combine the above analysis of what the Indians stand to gain by capping Salazar’s innings with the fact that we don’t know if there is any actual benefit in this type of innings cap for young starters, and it makes all the sense in the world for the Indians to place no restrictions on Salazar in 2014 provided the team is still in contention come September.
There is certainly some downside to allowing Salazar to blow past any possible innings cap. The Indians could conceivably buy out a year or two of Salazar’s free agency, although it’s unlikely the Indians would be willing to devote the resources necessary to do so. He could get seriously injured or lose serious effectiveness in 2015 or 2016, which would cost the Tribe quality innings from a starter making the minimum. But the process of flinging a baseball over one hundred times on thirty separate occasions leads to pitchers getting injured and losing effectiveness all the time with seemingly no rhyme or reason. Shutting Salazar down after 180 innings may lessen that risk, but by how much no one knows, and it may not help at all. Letting Salazar throw a lot of innings may lower his trade value when 2018 rolls around. But so long as Salazar is still posting quality numbers at that time, there are sure to be at least a couple teams willing to look past workload concerns to add the kind of top-of-the-rotation starter that rarely comes available in free agency nowadays.
At the same time, keeping Salazar unencumbered by an innings limit has upside that can be realized immediately. During the season, Salazar can go deeper into games, saving the team from using a lesser pitcher from the bullpen in close games, which should translate into more wins. If the Indians are in contention late in September, it will likely be due in no small part to an excellent season from Salazar. Having a flamethrowing Salazar available to make multiple starts in a playoff series may be the difference between an enjoyable season and a parade down Carnegie Avenue. For a team that has struggled to reach the postseason with any sort of consistency over the past decade, it’s paramount that they seize any opportunity to bring home the bacon.
There are no guarantees in baseball. Just because a team reaches the playoffs or World Series doesn’t guarantee they will do so again the following season. Just because a team limits the innings a young starter throws doesn’t guarantee he will stay injury free.
The Indians are in the business of balancing the risk and reward of every decision they make. When it comes to Danny Salazar, the risk of losing his innings during a pennant chase (and hopefully a World Series chase) does not outweigh the potential reward of keeping Salazar healthy down the road. This is especially true considering Salazar likely won’t be in Cleveland much past the 2017 season and we don’t actually know if limiting his innings will keep him healthy. The smart play, the play that most benefits the Indians, is to have Salazar let it fly in 2014.