I think we all knew not to expect Jose Valverde to repeat his stellar 2011 season in 2012. His perfect save record – and even his ERA – were thanks to no small bit of good fortune but Jose Valverde still looked like a good closer option even if we accepted that his numbers would fall back to Earth. He was striking out about a batter per inning and doing a very good job of keeping the ball in the yard. Even given his rising walk total he still looked like a pitcher who would put up an ERA in the low-to-mid three’s and lock down games more often than not.
But Jose Valverde is very clearly not the same pitcher he was a year ago. His strikeout rate is down by over two per nine innings, and he’s not getting the swings-and-misses that he used to. The pinnacle of the 2012 season was probably the dramatic win over the New York Yankees in the ALDS, and our final image of that series was Alex Rodriguez flailing at a Jose Valverde offering with runners in scoring position. You can say what you want about A-Rod being a “choker”, but there’s no doubt that this was a big strikeout of a huge hitter at the most crucial time.
Contrast that to last night where Valverde faced off against Jamey Carroll (and his .650 OPS) with Denard Span on second base. Carroll was able to loop a base hit into shallow center field to score the run. You would like it if you could call on your team’s supposed “relief ace” to get poor hitters out in a tie game in extra innings.
Valverde is simply not running his pitches past hitters like he used to. His average fastball velocity is down only a half mile per hour from last season, yet batters are making a lot more contact off of him than they were a year ago (they’re making contact on 83.3% of swings, up from 76.9% last year).
This change doesn’t pair well with Detroit’s defensive inefficiencies. More balls in play mean more opportunities for to find the ample holes in the infield, for errors, and for missed double plays. That’s not the feeling you want from a high leverage pitcher, especially with a speedster like Span on the bases.
It’s going to be difficult for the Tigers to close out games down the stretch if Valverde can’t somehow re-discover his strikeout stuff. It wouldn’t be easy (or necessarily healthy) to simply demote Valverde from the “closers role” and elevate Joaquin Benoit is his place – they’re going to need to rely on Valverde in some capacity and who knows what this would do to his mental state – but I wouldn’t be shocked to see Benoit enter the game in Valverde’s stead on an occasion or two in these next ten days (and possibly in the playoffs).
The defense is going to be what it is from here on out (bad), and so the Tigers will rely heavily on pitching and hitting to hide that deficiency. They can’t afford to allow late-inning relief pitching be a second weakness.