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Tigers Ink Valverde to Minor League Deal, Take Giant Risk

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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:

valv

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.

My Complicated Relationship with Jose Valverde

I have a complicate relationship with Jose Valverde.

It comes in three parts. First, I hate his dancing. I think it’s immature, obnoxious, and has no place in baseball. Second, until this season, he was vastly overrated by fellow Tigers fans who mistakenly believe saves are a relevant statistic for measuring performance. Third, he epitomizes part two – how managers use their bullpens to maximize saves instead of wins.

But he’s also a Tiger and I’m a fiercely loyal fan. I’m rooting for him to do well. But I also want him to stop dancing and celebrating like he’s some overcompensating, testosterone enhanced NFL linebacker. This is his fault. I want him to succeed, but he I know he won’t a lot of the time. This is not his fault.

It’s not his fault Leyland uses him when he shouldn’t and doesn’t pull him when he should. Valverde can’t take himself out of the game, so I don’t get mad at him, but I do get angry. It shouldn’t be like this.

Valverde shouldn’t be such a tool, but he also shouldn’t be put in situations where he is likely to fail because he simply is not a terribly good reliever. Especially not anymore.

So I’m not happy that he’s crumbling into nothingness, but I’m also not surprised. We’ve created this fake ideal world where closers are special people who have this innate ability to pitch in the 9th inning. We’ve created this world that says your best reliever has to get the final three outs because they are inherently the most difficult to get in all situations. Logically, at the very least, the second of those two statements is false.

Valverde is not the Tigers’ best reliever. He should not pitch in the closest games and he should not pitch instead of better arms, especially during the postseason when you don’t have to think about saving guys for later in the season.

I don’t need to chronicle his postseason meltdowns for you, except to say that he’s performed terribly in his last three outings to the point where you simply cannot use him. The results are bad, the process is bad, and it has certainly become a mental issue on top of whatever caused it in the first place. Valverde has never been that good in my opinion, but he’s also not this bad either.

During his Diamondbacks and Astros days, he walked plenty of hitters, but he also struck out more than 10.00 per 9. You can be wild if you’re also striking batters out. Since joining the Tigers in 2010, the walks are still high, but the strikeouts are crashing. He struckout just 6.26 per 9 in 2012. You can’t get away with those kinds of numbers.

His FIP, and most notably his xFIP (which is controlling for park effects/homerun rates) have gone the other direction, all the way up to 5.01 this season. He’s had a bad year that’s gotten worse in the playoffs.

In his best years, 2005 and 2008 in my book, he was a very useful reliever. Not elite, but good. But as a Tiger, he’s been bad or dangerously close. Last year, which everyone calls his “perfect season” because he saved all 49 save chances, he actually posted a strand rate of 82.9%. Essentially, that tells us he let a lot of guys on base but managed to not let them score.

That’s a really bad formula for someone if they can no longer strike guys out, which is exactly what happened this season.

It’s simple. Valverde is wild and hittable, so he lets a lot of guys on base. But he can strike hitters out, so they don’t score. If you lose your ability to get those Ks, you’ve lost everything and that’s what we’re seeing. This is the inevitable regression that’s been coming for three years and it’s happening at a really bad time.

If you delete the saves column in your stat sheet, he looks ordinary to bad over his Tigers career. Saves don’t measure a relievers skill because the definition is arbitrary and it is a function of how you are used, not how you pitch.

All of this adds up to Valverde being overvalued. He’s just not that good. But until this week, he was being used like he was. That part is not his fault. Leyland put him in a position to fail and wouldn’t take him out when he was failing because he’s “the closer.” I’ll talk in the offseason about why we shouldn’t have closers, but it’s safe to say that if Alburquerque pitched like Valverde had in New York, the hook from Leyland would have been faster, thus saving him the embarrassment and perhaps the game (luckily Smyly is awesome and allowed the Tigers to come back).

So my relationship with Papa Grande is complicated. Cockiness aside, he isn’t good, but it’s not his fault he is used and valued improperly. Hell, if Leyland called and told me to pitch the 9th for the Tigers I’d do it too. And I’d get lit up. If he didn’t dance, I’d be very sympathetic. I was with Todd Jones.

Jones did his best, but he wasn’t great, so he was stressful to watch. Valverde is the same, but there is this cockiness that complicates it.

I’m pulling for everyone on the team when they struggle. Inge, Raburn, Santiago, Kelly, Boesch, and others. They’re my team and I love them even when they suck. It’s the right way to be a fan. My love is not conditional on success, it’s conditional on effort.

So how should I feel about Valverde? I hate the attitude he displays on the mound and I sometimes think he only really tries when he’s got a shot at a “save.” But I don’t have evidence for the second part. All I know is that he’s not that good and gets put in bad situations. But the dancing gives me an out. It lets me direct my anger at him. Which I never would do to Inge or Raburn.

You can’t hate them because they failed. They don’t make out the lineups. But I can hate Valverde because he’s disrespectful to the game. Or shouldn’t I? Is this just providing me cover?

I’m not really sure. It’s complicated. But I know that despite all my problems with him during the last three seasons, it was really heartbreaking to watch him walk off the mound last night in San Francisco knowing his three year career in Detroit ended in such an awful fashion.

So many fans loved him, and he’s walking off into a stunned dugout. Fister and Verlander were there to greet him, but no one knew what to say. He had crumbled into a shell of himself at the worst time. I felt bad.

I had been so annoyed by him for so long, but I genuinely felt sorry for him as he slowly walked off the mound and out of Detroit.

I didn’t want it to end like this at all. I wanted it to end with him getting the final out and not dancing, but now I’ll get neither.

After three seasons, my relationship – our relationship – with Jose Valverde has ended, and it was a very sad ending to a very complicated affair.

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