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May 27, 2013; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Tigers relief pitcher Jose Valverde (46) reacts to the final out against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Comerica Park. Detroit won 6-5. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Detroit Tigers’ Jose Valverde Pops ‘em Up

I don’t know yet wheter I’m a believer in the rejuvenated Jose Valverde or not, but he’s been more than impressive in his 12 appearances so far this season. The 0.75 ERA is unexpectedly good and the six saves in seven opportunities is exactly what we’d expect from just about anyone, but questions remain regarding his effectiveness going forward.

Valverde’s velocity isn’t up over last season (93.0 mph average fastball velocity compared to 93.4 a season ago) – although he’s touched 95 mph on occasion, reports of him pitching there haven’t translated to game action – and he hasn’t yet gained comfort with his splitter (overall usage numbers are down over last season). Those two factors combine to imply that, from a “stuff” perspective, he’s not ahead of where he was in 2012. But he’s obviously getting different results so far.

His .107 BABIP allowed is a big part of the scale of the success – that will trend up significantly in the coming weeks and months – but walks are down, strikeouts are up, and he hasn’t allowed a home run yet. In fact, not only are strikeouts up and walks down, his strikeout and walk rates have never been better as a member of the Tigers. Valverde has punched out 25% of the hitters he’s faced this season – barely beating out 2010’s 24% and 2011’s 24% – while only walking 9% (ever so slightly better than last year).

But the strikeout and walk rates – however significant they may be – aren’t where his success has ended. 7% of the batters Valverde has faced this year have popped out in the infield (would have been 9% had the classification data I’m looking at counted Neil Walker‘s ninth inning fly out to deep shortstop as an infield fly ball on Monday). Valverde has typically been better than average at incuding pop ups in his career, but this year’s rate is currently double that of his career. The significant thing about a pop up is that, like a strikeout, it takes nearly zero involvement by the rest of the defense to complete the out. These are both plays that are completed probably 99% of the time.

Combining Valverde’s strikeout and popout rates for this year, we find that he’s retired 32% of the batters he’s faced while requiring almost no effort from his defense. His previous best such rate as a member of the Detroit Tigers was 27% in 2011 (23% strikeout, 4% popout).

He’s still getting good luck on balls in play – the .107 BABIP isn’t being suppressed by the pop up rate that much – but his tERA on the year (an ERA estimator that takes batted ball type into account) is just 2.05.

I’m sure his infield fly ball rate will regress (at least somewhat) toward his normal career rate of about 4%, but it might be an interesting number to watch. Who knows how long Valverde can keep up this level of success but, despite the red flags that also exist, we have some level of indication that Papa Grande has found some level of renewed effectiveness.

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