Cleveland Demotes One Enigma (Salazar), Promotes Another (Bauer)

trevor bauer

Danny Salazar hits triple-digits on the gun and has induced whiffs at the highest clip (10.9 per nine innings pitched) of any starter this side of Yu Darvish since the beginning of 2013. Trevor Bauer was the third overall pick in the 2011 draft and was considered the ace of UCLA’s pitching staff — not Gerrit Cole. Yet Salazar (90 ERA+) and Bauer (79 ERA+) have both been torched during their brief MLB careers, serving up so many homers and walks that they haven’t been able to get firm footing in an Indians rotation that ranks 27th in the majors with a 4.54 ERA.

The cellar-dwelling Tribe, now 8.5 games behind the Tigers in the AL Central standings, hope that exchanging one pitching enigma for another can improve their playoff chances. Cleveland opted Salazar to Triple-A Columbus following another four-inning throttling on May 15 and recalled Bauer, who’s seemingly back on track after making a strong spot start in the majors in early April and compiling a 2.15 ERA with a 44/14 K/BB ratio in 46 minor league frames. What does Salazar have to do to escape Triple-A, and what must Bauer accomplish to avoid going back?

For Salazar, it’s all about location. Scouts adore his fastball, and with good reason: the 24-year-old has the second-highest miss rate in the majors (25.4%) among starters throwing the pitch at least 1,000 times over the 2013-14 seasons. But big league hitters have crushed Salazar’s fastball when they do manage to make contact, slugging a collective .468 (40 points higher than the MLB average). The reason? His fastball catches the heart of the plate far too often. In fact, his two most frequent fastball locations are right down the middle:

Salazar’s fastball location, 2013-14
salazar fastball location

Salazar has thrown his fastball to the horizontal middle of the strike zone 27.9% of the time in the majors, which is well above the 24% MLB average and is the eighth-highest rate among MLB starters in 2013-14. Big league hitters can tattoo mid-to-upper-90s heat if it’s poorly located, and they’ve done just that to Salazar, going deep nine times against the pitch. Salazar’s fastball is a major reason why he has racked up nearly 11 Ks per nine innings, but it’s also why he has served up 1.5 HR/9 — the seventh-highest rate among starters logging 90-plus innings over the past two years. It’s also concerning that Salazar’s average fastball velocity is down more than two ticks this season (93.7 MPH) compared to 2013 (95.9 MPH). That makes his spotty command all the more exploitable for hitters.

Location has clearly been a problem for Bauer, too — you don’t post the fourth-highest walk rate (7.1 BB/9) among Expansion-Era starters throwing at least 35 career innings by channeling Greg Maddux. But the 23-year-old hasn’t been as terrible at finding home plate as you might expect: he has thrown 46.6% of his pitches in the strike zone, compared to the 49% average for starters. Not good, but not the stuff of an historic rate of free passes issued. A bigger problem seems to be that Bauer can’t get anyone to chase his stuff thrown off the plate.

Bauer has lured hitters into chasing pitches outside of the strike zone just 22.4% of the time since 2012, a far cry from the 28.2% MLB average over that time frame. His fastball is getting chases at a league-average pace (25.2%), but that’s hardly the case for his “soft” stuff. Bauer’s slider, curveball and changeup have generated swings on outside pitches a combined 20.1% of the time. The big league average? About 32%.

Bauer has had an especially difficult time getting hitters to go after his changeup (14% chase rate), and it’s easy to see why. Not even a Vladimir Guerrero-Josh Hamilton love child would swing at some of these offerings around (and over) hitters’ heads:

Bauer’s changeup location, 2012-14
bauer changeup location

Overall, Bauer has thrown a higher rate of “non-competitive” breaking and off-speed pitches (22%) than the MLB average (20%). Non-competitive pitches are thrown more than 18 inches away from the center of the strike zone, and they’re almost automatic takes for batters (they swing just 13% of the time against non-competitive breaking and off-speed pitches).

All is hardly lost with these two vexing young pitchers. Salazar misses bats like few we’ve seen in recent memory, and for all of Bauer’s training hijinks and underwhelming performances, he has been dominating at Triple-A at an age appropriate for that level. The problem is, the Indians need these guys to figure it out immediately — Scott Kazmir and Ubaldo Jimenez aren’t walking back through those clubhouse doors.