It took just a single blown save by the Tigers closer by committee for Jim Leyland and/or Dave Dombrowski to panic. A single blown save caused them to jump ship on the idea (which is a good one) that you do not need a defined closer to be successful. One data point. The Tigers abandoned the strategy, or at least signaled their intent to, because of one bad inning that included a defensive miscue.
Today, the Tigers signed Jose Valverde to a minor league deal that requires them to call him up by May 5th or he can opt out of the deal. The financial risk is minimal, which has led writers both local and national to suggest that this is simply the Tigers exploring all of their options and doing something that won’t cost them anything if it doesn’t work out.
That is bad analysis. There is a giant, catastrophic, enormous risk in signing Valverde. The risk is that he could pitch well enough in Lakeland that they call him up and return him to the closer role, thus abandoning closer by committee and reverting to the paradigm in which they have a closer, but that closer is terrible.
This signing is the Tigers signaling that they think Valverde is better than any of the arms they have in their bullpen. That is not true. It’s not as if the Tigers middle relief had a bad week and they decided to add Valverde for depth. They added Valverde because they think he can be their closer, which they define as their best reliever. This is crazy. Valverde isn’t good enough to be the last man in the Tigers bullpen and he’s going to get a chance to win the closer role.
Don’t get me wrong, Valverde was a good reliever earlier in his career. But he’s been getting worse over the last few years and had a really bad season last year that ended in an utter and complete meltdown. I don’t mean to indicate that Valverde is no longer a useful MLB reliever, but he is no longer a good reliever on a contending team.
Allow me to illustrate this with a graph. Here is Valverde’s strikeouts per 9 and walks per 9 over his ten major league seasons:
As you can see, his walk rate is higher over the last three seasons than it was over the previous three, but it hasn’t changed dramatically. He’s a high walk guy, that’s who he is. Fine. But the strikeout rate is very troubling. It has gotten worse every tear since 2006. Every year. It was below 7.0 last year. That is not a recipe for success. His xFIP was 5.01 last year!
If Valverde performs poorly over the next couple weeks and the closer by committee works well, then we have nothing to worry about. In that scenario, there is no harm in this move. But that’s not what’s going to happen. You know that isn’t how this story is going to go. Valverde will look good in extended spring training. Leyland will foam at the mouth because he wants a real closer and the Tigers will call him up. The Tigers will have a “closer” and everyone who doesn’t know better will be happy. But the outcomes will be worse. Valverde will blow as many games as the committee would have and the middle relief will be worse off because Downs or Villarreal will end up in Toledo.
This signing gives the Tigers a path to revert back to a situation that is safer from a PR perspective. Leyland won’t have to answer committee questions from writers who don’t understand baseball and fans will go back to living in a world in which their views on closers are unchallenged.
But that’s wrong. Closer by committee is the right way to run a bullpen. Someone has to break through and show the world it works. But everyone has to buy into it. The GM, the manager, and the players. If they don’t, then we get this. A washed up former closer who belongs in the Rockies bullpen pitching in close games for a pennant contender. The Tigers were positioned to make such a statement. The have good relievers, but none were defined as closers. It will work if Leyland sticks with it.
This move is an overreaction. It’s a mistake and it’s a risk. The committee blew a single save on the second day of the season and they panicked. Apparently, that’s all they needed to see to decide their closing situation was flawed.
Except last year, Jose Valverde entered in the 9th inning of the first game of last season. And he blew the save.
The Tigers overreacted to a single data point and used that to justify reverting to a strategy that feels safe. But they’re wrong. Valverde in the 9th is a worse option than what they have now. If he flames out in Lakeland, no problem. If he doesn’t and finds his way onto the team, it will be bad news.
And that’s exactly what’s going to happen. Because as much as “saves” don’t matter and anyone can close, there exists a mythology in baseball about the 9th inning and the men who can conquer it. That mythology is utter nonsense, but for now, it seems clear that no one is willing to challenge it.