Fernando Salas: The Unsung Hero

I heard it again today after the Cardinals optioned Mitchell Boggs to Memphis. “Alright Boggs down, now can we get rid of Salas?”

And I have to say that I really don’t understand the dislike of Fernando Salas by a large portion of the fan base. I see it often, people wishing Salas wasn’t a part of the bullpen or the team. While I’ll admit that Salas really isn’t a true elite reliever like a Craig Kimbrel, he is a very good one more often than not. And those are the guys that usually make or break a bullpen.

But Salas has done so much for this team over the last few seasons that many are quick to forget.

In 2011 we found ourselves very much in a similar situation, without a closer. Ryan Franklin forgot how to pitch, much like Mitchell Boggs has this season. He kept being used early, despite his issues which probably compounded them. Boggs then got the first crack at closing, but lost it after his first blown save. Tony La Russa went to Eduardo Sanchez and his nasty slider next. It wasn’t until just a few games later that batters realized Sanchez’s slider wasn’t being called a strike and he quickly found himself getting into trouble.

And finally the ball was given to Fernando Salas. Salas provided the stability that had been lacking out of the 9th inning guy, saving his first 10 opportunities. He had experience, having closed in the previous seasons in Springfield and Memphis, being perfect in save opportunities. When Jason Motte took over the job in September, Salas had saved 23 of 28 opportunities, posted a 2.43 ERA and 0.92 WHIP. He successfully bridged the gap.

When the 2012 season began, Mike Matheny called Salas a critical piece of his bullpen. Unfortunately, a little conglomeration of minerals, a kidney stone, derailed that idea early as he struggled through the pain. He was sent down to Memphis and passed the stone soon after. When he returned in June, he came back much better. From his return to the end of August, Salas posted a 2.62 ERA and a 0.99 WHIP.  He did struggle in September, but turned in four quality outings in October and in the one where he did struggle, it was the extreme of low leverage situations as the Cardinals won that game by five runs.

But you’re right, sports are a “What have you done for me lately” commodity. So now we advance to 2013 with the bullpen once again in disarray and there is still a group of people that don’t see that Salas has been one of our best relievers, if not the best, this season. Maybe in relation to Boggs and Marc Rzepczynski, you might say. But no, even in comparison to Edward Mujica, who has stepped into that closer’s role, playing the part of Fernando Salas in this reimagination of the 2011 struggles.

If you remove the first series of the season against Arizona, Salas has been the best pitcher in the bullpen. Here are the ERA and WHIP numbers for the Cardinals’ bullpen without that series included:

Salas: 2.19 ERA, 0.72 WHIP
Mujica: 2.79 ERA, 0.72 WHIP
Choate: 2.45 ERA, 1.09 WHIP
Rosenthal: 3.21 ERA, 1.29 WHIP
Kelly: 9.45 ERA, 2.10 WHIP
Rzepczynski: 12.60 ERA. 2.80 WHIP
Boggs: 16.32 ERA, 3.52 WHIP

As you can see, by far the two best pitchers have been Salas and Mujica.

You see Salas is a middle reliever. It’s a thankless job. When he does the job well, nobody notices. When he does the job poorly, we all call for his release on Twitter. It’s a position where one bad outing can ruin your stats for a month. Needless to say, our bullpen and our team would have been in a world of hurt if not for Salas.

All I’m asking is that people realize that wanting to get rid of Fernando Salas is a ridiculous notion. He has very quietly gotten the job done better than most of our relievers over the last three seasons. Of Cardinals’ relievers since 2011, Salas is second in innings pitched (a third of an inning behind Boggs, and four innings ahead of Motte). Of pitchers with more than 30 innings pitched, he is 4th in ERA+ (behind Mujica, Motte, and Rosenthal).

Does he have his shortcomings? Sure, but most pitchers do. Most relievers do. It’s why they’re in the bullpen to begin with.

Middle relief is a thankless position. Nobody cares about it. That is, until you don’t have it.