Tigers Ink Valverde to Minor League Deal, Take Giant Risk
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.
Closers Don’t Matter: Rondon, Dotel, Who Cares?
Alright guys, it’s time to have the talk. We’ve been putting it off for a while, but I think you’re ready. You’re starting to ask questions, and you should hear it from me.
Closers don’t matter.
I’m exaggerating a little bit. They matter because they’re one of your seven relievers and tend to pitch in close games. So it’s important that they aren’t bad, but they don’t matter in the way you think they do.
This is of importance because Tigers closer in waiting Bruce Rondon has struggled in Spring Training and everyone is starting to panic. “The Tigers need a proven closer!” they will say. “Rondon isn’t up to the task, we must find the Tigers a closer!” they are already saying.
But closers are just not as important as everyone thinks. You don’t need an experienced closer. You don’t need a closer at all. The Tigers would be great going closer by committee or to use Rondon. Or anyone who is reasonably competent.
Saves Are Made Up
Saves are arbitrary. A three run or fewer lead? Bring in the closer! Four runs, forget about it. Why is it that a four run lead against the Angels isn’t a save but a three run lead against the Astros is? It makes no sense. You can also receive a save when you pitch horribly. If you come in with a three run lead and walk three and give up a hit, but then get the next three guys out, you get a save despite allowing more baserunners than outs.
Save are not a measure of performance, they are a measure of opportunity. If you gave the best reliever in baseball 50 save opportunities he would get 48 or 49 saves. If you gave the median reliever 50 save opportunities, he would get 44 or 45 saves. It does not require any sort of special skill to be a closer above and beyond pitching in any other inning.
The Ninth Inning Isn’t Always the Most Important
Why have we decided the last three outs are the most important and most difficult outs to get? If the middle of the order is up in the seventh inning of a one run game, that is when you should use your best reliever. If your closer is your best reliever, he should come into the game when it is most on the line.
If we were to assume that your closer is your best reliever, he should be used when you have the most to lose. That isn’t always the ninth inning. Don’t save him for an inning that might not come. The ninth inning is no different from any other inning.
Anyone Can Close
Think about this. A team’s All-Star closer goes down in Spring Training and will miss the whole season. They’re in trouble right? Wrong. They replace him with a middle reliever and they win the World Series. That happened last season.
Good relievers are good relievers. Use them and they will perform well. Sergio Romo wasn’t a proven closer and now, all of a sudden, he is one.
There is no closer mentality or proven closer mold. If you can pitch in the eighth inning, you can pitch in the ninth. We’ve seen middle relievers become closers and we’ve seen lots of critical innings come and go with closers waiting for a save that never came.
I realize I’m trying to make two points at once, so let me break it down. 1) Anyone who is a reasonable good reliever can pitch in the closer role and rack up saves. 2) The idea of a closer who pitches the ninth inning of close games is silly.
Both points are relevant to the current Tigers situation, so let’s take them in turn.
First, Rondon can close. So can Dotel, Benoit, or Coke. You don’t need any special skills. They are all capable relievers who could easily thrive in the ninth inning because they have shown they are able to perform in the 6th, 7th, and 8th inning. Maybe you might think that Rondon hasn’t earned his keep, and I suppose we could discuss if he is actually not ready to pitch in the majors at all, but I think that he is. And I think he would be perfect for the role.
I think that, because of point number 2. Turning your relief ace into a closer who has a very limited job description means you can’t use him when you need him earlier in games. So, why not use your third best reliever as your closer and leave your best two guys to pitch when you need them more?
That’s exactly what you should do. If I can’t win the war and eliminate the position of closer entirely, what if instead, we just didn’t use our best reliever for that spot and instead, recognized that we can get the most out of our bullpen by using our best reliever in a more flexible fashion.
I want Dotel, Benoit, and Coke available to pitch whenever I need them. If that is the 6th inning, so be it. They are better than Rondon right now, so I’d rather have them for earlier in the game if I get into a jam. Rondon, being the closer, will always get to start with no one on base and will only pitch when he doesn’t have to rush to warm up. He’ll know in advance he’s pitching, so he won’t need to get loose in a hurry.
Hmmm. A young, erratic reliever with a ton of potential. What’s the best way to use him? In situations with no one on base after a well-paced warm up. Sounds exactly like the closer role to me.
Now it may be the case the Rondon simply isn’t ready for big league pitching. If that proves to be the case after Spring Training (Guys, it’s been two weeks!), then he should spend time in Toledo and we shouldn’t bother having a closer at all.
Saves are all in our heads. There is no latent save. It was made up in the 70s by a sportswriter who was apparently too dense to look at strikeouts and ERA. You shouldn’t get special credit for getting three outs in the ninth when someone else just got three outs in the eighth. Managers should use the reliever best suited for each situation as it comes up. If that means Coke in the 7th, Dotel in the 8th, Rondon in the 9th, great. If it means a different order, that’s fine too.
I’m not worried for a second about Rondon in the closer role. In fact, I would advocate for it. It’s better to have your best guys available to pitch in any inning rather than pigeonholed into a single one.
Of the ten closers with the most saves in 2012, only four had more than 10 saves in 2011. Good pitchers will get saves and there’s a good case to be made that you’re wasting your best reliever if you make him your closer.
Your closer isn’t any more important than your eighth inning guy. Or your seventh inning guy. Your closer is someone who gets saves, and saves don’t count in the standings.
So I hope the Tigers go with Rondon or Dotel or anyone on the current roster. They don’t need to sign a proven closer because you don’t have to be proven to succeed in the closer’s role and the closer’s role doesn’t even matter that much to begin with.
Unless you’re playing fantasy baseball. Then it matters a lot.
What do you think? Is Rondon the right fit for the closer’s role? Do we overvalue closers? If you answered anything but yes to the last question, read this article again and again until your answer changes.