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.
The Tigers made news today by announcing Jim Leyland and his coaching staff will return in 2013. Additionally, Dave Dombrowski met the press to talk about the 2013 roster.
Let’s start with Leyland. Some Tigers’ fans have been calling for Leyland’s job this season in frustration with his lineup choices among other things. I, however, maintain that this was a good choice for the 2013 Tigers.
Managers have control over certain aspects of a team, so let’s evaluate Leyland point by point. First, managers set the lineup and make on field personnel choices. Fans take exception with Leyland in this department, but I’ll defend him on two points. One, lineup order matters very little. If you put the right 9 guys on the field, over the course of a season, it doesn’t matter than much where they hit. Two, no one, not even fans use ideal lineups. The game is too set in its ways for that. Want to see the Tigers ideal lineup based on their production (based on who got the most ABs this year)?
Fielder, Dirks, Peralta, Cabrera, Jackson, Infante, Young, Boesch, Avila
Fielder, Dirks, Avila, Cabrera, Jackson, Young, Peralta, Infante, Berry
Not what you expected, right? Basically the commentary here is that no one would do it much better, so who cares. As for who he puts on the field, he can only work with what he’s given. Dombrowski makes the roster, Leyland just puts them on paper.
How about his management of the pitching staff? As far as the starters go, Leyland’s pretty good. He doesn’t usually leave guys in too long, but also doesn’t have too quick a hook. His bullpen management is problematic at times, but most managers struggle there. He insists on using his closer only in save situations too often and only for one inning at a time (more on bullpen usage later this winter).
His in-game strategy bothers me at times. He brings the infield in too often (you should only do it in the 9th inning and never if there’s a runner on second unless the game ending run is on third) and bunts far too often. But even these mistakes are pretty common and it’s not really holding the club back.
On the field, he’s not a tremendous skipper, but he’s not really costing them a lot of games. However, in the clubhouse, he’s widely respected. The players love him and there has almost never been a clubhouse spat during his tenure. All told, I think the quality environment he brings to the organization outweighs the potential negatives of his on field strategy because the Tigers are not a club that would push the boundaries with a new school manager who would actually correct the problems I’ve laid out.
As for the Dombrowski presser, we learned a few things we expected. Valverde and Young will not be back. Peralta and Dotel had their options exercised. The Tigers intend to pursue Anibal Sanchez in free agency and will make the 5th spot Smyly’s to lose if they fail.
They’ll go with an in house candidate to replace Valverde and will not spend heavily in the bullpen, but will add pieces if they can. Corner outfield will be a target to hold down the fort until Castellanos and Garcia are ready for the show. Dirks will be a fourth outfielder or better and Berry will get a shot to compete for a job.
Infante and Martinez should be ready for Opening Day.
So the roster will look like this:
C – Avila
1B – Fielder
2B – Infante
SS – Peralta
3B – Cabrera
LF – Dirks
CF – Jackson
RF – (TBA)
DH – Martinez
Bench – Santiago, backup catcher, TBA, TBA
Starting Rotation – Verlander, Fister, Scherzer, Porcello, Sanchez/Smyly/other
Bullpen – Benoit, Dotel, Coke, Alburquerque, Villarreal, TBA, TBA.
The obvious places for offseason activity are corner outfield, bullpen help, some bench help, and maybe the #5 starter. They’ll pay some of their arbitration eligible players more money and will talk extension with some. All in all, the core is in place.
It will be a mostly quiet offseason in Detroit, but we said that last year. Stay tuned for full coverage, but my key offseason target this winter for the Tigers is Torii Hunter. He’ll play a quality RF, hit well, and can mentor Jackson.
The Tigers head into the offseason looking to win it all in 2013 after a runner up performance in 2012.
SABR Toothed Tigers will have full coverage every time news breaks and will provide plenty of analysis for all of the Hot Stove dealings this winter. 153 days til Opening Day.