Doing the Best With Jose Valverde

All offseason long, the Detroit Tigers denied interest in re-signing free-agent closer Jose Valverde. Every other team in baseball also effectively denied interest in signing Valverde. The Tigers did next to nothing to address their closer situation, and on Wednesday, Phil Coke blew a save against the Twins. Thursday, the Tigers signed Valverde, albeit to a minor-league contract with an early-May opt out. There have been, I think, two primary responses:

(1) It’s a minor-league contract so it’s utterly risk-free — if Valverde doesn’t earn a big-league job, he won’t be given a big-league job. What’s the harm?

(2) The Tigers won’t be able to help themselves. Valverde isn’t what he was, but it won’t be long before he’s closing again for Detroit, and possibly costing them games. He’s “proven”, he’s familiar, he’s still thought of as a closer despite everything. This is how it starts.

You know where the truth probably is? The truth is probably in between those two things, as it just about always is when you’re dealing with perceived blacks and whites. Blacks and whites tend to be extreme outlooks, and results tend not to be extreme. Anyhow, this is basically just a month-long trial. Dave Dombrowski hardly conveyed that Valverde’s a big-league guarantee. This only got done because Valverde finally dropped his demands. Or Scott Boras finally dropped his demands, whichever. But a lot of people within the Tigers organization like the idea of having an established closer on what’s going to be a contending team, and it was just two years ago with Detroit that Valverde didn’t blow a single save. There’s going to be internal pressure to bring Valverde up, so this isn’t a minor-league contract like just any other minor-league contract. This one comes with other considerations.

Four games. It’s funny how much can be made of four games, especially when they take place in the playoffs. Valverde’s postseason meltdown last October was stunning and historic, and it probably cost him a lot of money. People are going to have trouble shaking that image of Valverde coughing up hits left and right with the stakes at their highest. But then, the postseason before, Valverde allowed six runs and 14 baserunners in six appearances, and less was made of his struggles. Granted, that led right into Valverde’s inconsistent 2012. But with regard to the 2012 playoffs, Valverde pitched in four games and faced 20 batters. During the regular season, he was better in the second half than he was in the first. How meaningful was that October, really?

But Valverde’s performance was down in the regular season, too, if considerably less so. He lost a quarter of his strikeouts and a fifth of his grounders. He had problems against lefties and he allowed more frequent contact than Rick Porcello. He lost the feel for his splitter. Valverde wasn’t a bad reliever. He doesn’t project as a bad reliever. He just hasn’t looked like a closer, and his October further devastated his market.

It’s significant that, for a while, the Tigers made no strong effort to bring Valverde back. And not because they had their sights set on some other proven stopper — they intended to roll with an untested rookie, who’s presently down in the minors because he can’t pitch to lefties, either. The Tigers know the most about Jose Valverde, and they didn’t want him back at anything bigger than this virtually no-cost arrangement. It’s evident that the most powerful people within the organization are down on Valverde’s future, since it would’ve been otherwise easy to justify his return.

Now consider that you’re Scott Boras, trying to sell Valverde to potentially interested front offices. More than ever, teams are backing off the idea of needing a “proven closer”. More than ever, teams are intelligent, so while Valverde would’ve wanted to find a closer job, those haven’t really been available, especially to him. Boras started by looking for some millions of dollars, and only late Wednesday, or early Thursday, did Boras and Valverde express a willingness to take a minor-league deal. That was the key for the Tigers, and it’s of interest that Boras left Dombrowski a message shortly after Coke blew the save. Boras is no idiot when it comes to finding his clients the right homes.

That the demands dropped so far down suggests that no good Valverde market really developed. That would hardly be a surprise. But now look where we are. It would be easy to interpret this as Boras getting desperate, and there would’ve been some element of desperation, I’m sure. But, for one thing, the Tigers are supposed to be good, so they’re not going to want to tolerate any slip-ups. The Tigers don’t have a proven closer on the roster, and their closer prospect has command and platoon problems. Most experiments with mix-and-match closer solutions end up with designated individual closer solutions. Now Valverde has been re-introduced to the organization, and because he’s so familiar, he’s going to have people in his camp. People who remember everything he’s done for the Tigers, people who won’t look at this only objectively. In the big leagues, the Tigers don’t have a closer. In the minors, now, they’ll have their most recent closer, and there will be some degree of pressure to put him back.

Boras got his client a job for cheap, because he couldn’t find his client a job for less cheap. But now the pressure has shifted, from Boras trying to find a way to make Valverde a closer to the Tigers trying to find out if they have a closer in the new old guy. As much as Dombrowski can say that this is simply a no-risk trial, signing Valverde instantly stirs a few organizational emotions and biases. Some people are going to be looking for ways to get Valverde up, which means there’s going to be an extended discussion, provided Valverde doesn’t struggle in Triple-A. For Valverde, the path to closing isn’t clear, but he can have a sense that he’s going in the right direction. If Valverde has true-talent level X, it would be easier for the Tigers to make him a closer than for any other team, because of who he is and because of the present situation.

Scott Boras didn’t find Jose Valverde a closing job, but that would’ve been impossible. Boras found Valverde the potential for a closing job, with a biased organization. There are worse ways this could’ve worked out for Valverde, is all I’m saying. I don’t think anyone would be shocked if Valverde were closing again in a month and a half.

Valverde probably isn’t dreadful. Reports say that he’s lost weight and that his velocity is back up a little bit from where it was down the stretch a year ago. They say he’s throwing his splitter more, that he has more faith in it. The Tigers, now, are the team that’s going to take the closest look. To earn a promotion, Valverde’s going to have to pitch well, but I don’t know how well he’ll actually have to pitch, given the identity of his new employer.




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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

35 Responses to “Doing the Best With Jose Valverde”

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  1. Kevin says:

    This makes me groan, if only for the fact that it shows a team that is spooked already. If we really have to have a designated closer, why not give that focus on the three guys on the lineup who already have the proven ability to strikeout more than one batter per inning? at least give them a chance.

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  2. byron says:

    So does Leyland not remember anything about bullpen management, hence letting Coke face righties in a high-leverage situation, or was he throwing the game to get a “proven” closer in there? He maybe should be fired either way.

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    • HatchetMan2004 says:

      You took the words out of my mouth Byron. I couldn’t believe it when Coke was left in, even more so when the announcers showed his splits in 2012. 0.396 against righties? Why Layland didn’t bring in a right hander I will never know. It’s not as though the bottom of the order was strong for the Twins.

      Talk about costing your team the game.

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      • The Ronin says:

        Totally agree. The reason I dont like Leyland as a manager is that he seems to be the kind of guy that would rather lose games his way than adapt his style to the talent on hand.

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  3. James says:

    “It’s evident that the most powerful people within the organization are down on Valverde’s future, since it would’ve been otherwise easy to justify his return.”

    As a Tigers fan, based on admittedly anecdotal evidence I’ve seen between Game 1 of the ALCS and today, I very much disagree with this. I think the entire reason it took so long for the Tigers to sign Valverde is that it *is* very difficult for them to justify his return. As a closer, people always remember the games you blew, and that’s especially true when two of the games you blew were game 4 of the ALDS and game 1 of the ALCS. A lot of people are really upset at this move, to the degree that, as unfair biases regarding Valverde are concerned, the bias *against* him is at least as strong as the bias for him.

    To me (and as a disclaimer, this is obviously speculation), the disaster in the 9th inning yesterday gave Dombrowski cover to make a move he’s probably been considering since Rondon turned out to be a flop.

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  4. MDL says:

    For his career Valverde has a 2.37 ERA in odd-numbered years and a 3.91 ERA in even-numbered years. Give that man a glove, stick him on the mound, and watch that bespeckled beast save 40+ games.

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    • ralph says:

      I always kind of wonder about guys who alternate good/bad years. Are there some who get lazy after a good year, and get working after the bad year that comes from being lazy? Or is it just one of those things that’s bound to happen given enough data points?

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  5. AMAC says:

    This is Brian Wilson’s best news possible?

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  6. I lean strongly toward (2) above. If Valverde does so-so for a few appearances in the minors, he is likely to be made the MLB closer. We have seen Detroit do similar things with Inge (in 2011), Raburn (2012), and Kelly (this spring). The organization seems to hold a gigantic bias toward ex-Tigers.

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    • The Ronin says:

      Agreed, except for the fact that there was at least a little reason to think Raburn was gonna be useful going into 2012 as opposed to Inge or Kelly (Or the last year or so of Mags). Maybe not as a 2b but I certainly would have played him over Young and Boesch in the corners going into the year. Leyland stuck with him too long as is his custom, but he had shown some spark before 2012.

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      • I was referring to how Inge and Raburn were sent down to AAA mid-season for a brief time. After a small sample of success, each were called back thrown back into the lineup.

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      • Edgardo Carrero says:

        Let’s say that Valverde comes back and saves 30 with good peripherals… I don’t think Leyland, Dombrowski, or Ilitch would be comfortable in bringing Valverde up with a score of 1-0 in the first game of the ALCS… Heck, even, if it were to be 5-0, they will have doubts. So, why on earth would they want to go back down that road again?

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  7. Rob says:

    If he throws a pitch in Detroit this year I will probably stay away from the ballpark . The tigers are INCREDIBLY biased, from dombrowski to Leyland. Leyland is a players manager and so well liked because he plays everybody no matter how bad they are. He started his boy Don Kelly in LF today, who the tigers have released twice since August and he’s passed waivers/free agency. Nobody wants him at all, but he’s a big leaguer who plays in the 3rd game of the year because Leyland likes him. This organization makes terrible decisions because try are so biased, they don’t care about production at all. They will never win with Leyland. They have underperformed/collapsed every single he’s been here. As a tigers fan, I’m tired of it. Valverde in a tigers uniform would put me over the edge.

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    • The Party Bird says:

      I’d say with an ALCS appearance and a World Series appearance in the past two years that the Tigers when they’re “collapsing” are better than most teams.

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      • Well-Beered Englishman says:

        I bet the Astros wish they could collapse like the Tigers have.

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      • Rob says:

        But they fell short of expectations. They choked away the ALCS. And the World Series.

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        • Kevin says:

          Texas was a flat out better team in 2011 and it showed. And in 2012 the Giants were the better team. Sometimes it helps to simply acknowledge not that you choked, but you got your butt flat out kicked. If Detroit was up 3-0 to the Giants then blew the next 4 games, then yes, that is a choke.

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  8. Neil says:

    #2 is exactly what is going to happen. I’m disappointed because the Tigers were in great position to debunk the closer myth and they’re caving after one blown save.

    Any SABR friendly Tigers fans looking for another perspective on this are welcome at http://newenglishd.com/ .

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    • Rob says:

      So when the Tigers were 11-50 with RISP during the 2011 playoffs, it was solely because of their opponents? You have to hold them accountable, regardless of who they play. Leylands Detroit teams have always disappeared in the big moments. It doesn’t matter who had the better team…Detroit consistently had runners on base in both of those series but couldn’t get a big hit to drive them in. The Tigers are never held accountable. Not by Dombrowski and definitely not be Leyland. They reward “their boys” with playing time and new contracts and ignore the players who produce. Like Andy Dirks in 2012.

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  9. Tactical Bear says:

    Two points:

    1) I live near Detroit, and a lot of the chatter I heard on sports talk radio today suggests there won’t be significant external (ie, fan-driven) pressure on Dombo to use Valverde as the closer. In fact, it was quite the opposite. The (admittedly early) consensus seems to be that, yes, even casual fans and radio personae know how much Valverde sucks, and nobody wants to see him toeing the slab anytime soon. One radio host offered tempered praise for the move, saying it would have been much easier for Dombrowski to just refuse to touch Valverde — even in a seemingly low-risk context such as this one — rather than deal with the criticism that’s bound to come along with the move.

    2) Considering how much as we in the nerdmunity hammer home how relatively little individual relievers matter, the reaction to this move is kind of baffling to me. This isn’t some typical overvaluation of a bullpen arm; it’s a lottery ticket. The Tigers have some holes in their bullpen, and they are familiar with Valverde, so they are taking an extremely low-risk flier. The odds of it working are slim, but so are the odds of it backfiring.

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  10. JuanPierreDoesSteroids says:

    When (if) he gets a save in the minor leagues, will he act like he just went back in time and stopped the Holocaust? Sorry, I just can’t help but root for Valverde to fail to make the big leagues again. It just makes me too mad watching a guy inherit a 3-0 lead, give up 2 runs to get 3 outs, and act like he was the freaking hero of the game.

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  11. Ed says:

    Jay-Z would have gotten him a big league deal.

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  12. Schuxu says:

    “They say he’s throwing his splitter more, that he has more faith in it.”

    Where does he do that, in the bullpens around the world? How can one evaluate the faith a pitcher has in his pitches if he does not pitch in (high leverage) game situations?

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  13. Switters says:

    They should give Benoit a shot. If his HR/FB rate regresses he’d look even better statistically than he already does. They’re playing him “closer money.” Why not just give him a shot?

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  14. Joaquin Benoit says:

    sigh

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  15. jeffcole08 says:

    Just one comment about Valverde’s “regression” in the postseason and last year. Even in his “perfect” year he was a terrible pitcher. He lucked his way into a lot of those saves by somehow stranding just enough runners after giving up walks and singles and his numbers were significantly worse in non save situations. He’s always been pretty bad, his save totals just made him look better.

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  16. Scooter says:

    I have two things to say. Jason Grilli and Fernando Rodney.

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  17. CJ in Austin Tx says:

    Throughout most of his career, Valverde has had stints of varying durations where he is just a melt down machine. But, if he is given the time, he usually figures out how to correct his mechanics and comes back strong. I know that’s a generalization, but Valverde seems to be the type of pitcher who is prone to getting out of synch, but eventually makes a correction. Maybe Valverde’s velocity decline indicates that his problem in the playoffs is the end of the line. But, more likely, the glitch in his mechanics came at the wrong time.

    I’m not a Tigers’ fan, but this seems like a good move by the Tigers. If Valverde’s playoff melt down was due to correctable mechanics, an AAA assignment gives him time to iron out the problem.

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  18. Dan says:

    Against some very stiff competition, Jose Valverde is the most annoying pitcher in baseball. The histrionics, both before each pitch and after every strike out, or hey, after every strike, the sheer amount of time it takes for him to deliver each pitch, and the simple fact that he sucks. It is difficult to find decent pitchers, I concede, but it can’t be that difficult to find someone for the back end of your bullpen. It’s certainly a better option than putting Valverde at the front end, which is exactly what is going to happen if he has any success at all on his way back up to the big club.

    (1) It’s a minor-league contract so it’s utterly risk-free — if Valverde doesn’t earn a big-league job, he won’t be given a big-league job. What’s the harm?

    If I have to hear this statement one more time I am going to scream. We are talking about the Tigers here, so the harm is that a guy like Valverde winds up pitching in high-leverage situations in big baseball games that, for some reason, matter to me.

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    • Ruki Motomiya says:

      I like Valverde’s histrionics after he does something good. They amuse me and they don’t do any harm.

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      • CJ in Austin Tx says:

        I think it depends on which side you are on. I am an Astros’ fan and I enjoyed–or perhaps was amused by–his enthusiasm when he played with the Astros. However, when he was with his previous team, the D-Backs, I was annoyed by his actions. When you get to know more about his personality, you realize that he is a nice guy and probably doesn’t mean to rub it in.

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