Jose Valverde hasn’t looked very sharp this year… and after seeing him come uncomfortably close to blowing a 5-run lead in the Bronx on Saturday, I doubt I’m the only one who is concerned. He has only blown one save and that was way back in the opening series against Boston, but he has seemed to struggle in ways he had not struggled in the past. Last year, while being perfect in save situations, Valverde didn’t seem to be quite his dominating self (allowing too many baserunners on) – but he was still a pretty solid reliever overall. This year? It has been a different story.
During the offseason, there was some debate over whether the Tigers should or should not pick up Valverde’s option. By and large, the rationale for those (like myself) who wouldn’t have minded letting him go was that he was no better and no cheaper (and a little older) than other options on the market and could have fetched a draft pick in compensation. Obviously, the Tigers went with the devil they knew (and thankfully did not chase Ryan Madson instead, as I believe that I suggested at one point or another) and picked up his hefty option.
For a while I have been working on a piece on what to do when Valverde’s contract is up – the 2011 free agent class looked much deeper in the bullpen than next years is going to – and it has brought home the apparent lack of any real relief aces burbling up through the Tigers system. Maybe in 3 years time, if things develop as we’d like, we could see Casey Crosby closing games. But in 2012? Now that issue seems a little more urgent as (like I mentioned way back at the top of this post) Jose Valverde isn’t looking all that great. There aren’t any young guns that look ready to take the closer role should Valverde lose it – or prove to be playing hurt.
His numbers in the month of April suggest that this could be… His ERA sits at 5.59 and while that obviously isn’t good it doesn’t tell the whole story. Sometimes guys have bad luck – they happen to give up seeing-eye singles at just the wrong times, etc… Especially in such a small sample you can dig a little deeper and see that the guy with the high ERA hasn’t pitched all that bad. If his peripherals look good, you’d probably expect him to bounce right back, but Valverde’s look downright awful. His walk rate has gone up from 4.23 per 9 innings to 6.52 – those are Al Alburquerque numbers. On the other hand, his strikeout rate has gone down from 8.59 per 9 to 5.59 – and those are not. His BABIP, which he held low at .259 in 2009, .231 in 2010 and .247 in 2011 has inflated all the way to .313. His groundball rate – which he managed to keep pretty high with Tigers in 2010 and 2011 has dropped down all the way to the numbers he put up as a flamethrower for the Diamondbacks way back when. Guys are swinging more and making better contact against him than ever before. Roll it all together and you get a guy with an xFIP of 6.00 – even higher than his actual ERA of 5.59.
He has converted four saves in five tries, and does actually have a positive WPA overall, but I don’t know how long that can continue if he doesn’t start to make better pitches soon. His velocity has been down a hair from 2011 (and in 2011 it was down significantly from previous years) but I’m not sure that stuff is the culprit – he just hasn’t seemed to be able to locate within the zone. Perhaps he doesn’t have the stuff – at the moment – to get away with mistakes he could have in 2010. Slightly more worrying: last year we saw Valverde’s L-R splits really explode to a .255 point OPS gap from a career average of about .100 points. Since he limited righties to a .432 OPS – we could live with that. So far this season he is – again – holding righties to a .483 OPS but lefties have put up a 1.289 OPS against him. Is he becoming a ROOGY? Valverde is 34 – part of an all-around old bullpen – so we’ll be keeping our fingers crossed.
If he’s simply not his old self – and not an imploding mess – for the duration of the season, the Tigers can probably live with that. We did, after all, see a lot of saves converted by a Todd Jones with stuff little better than Brad Penny‘s. But… what happens if he does implode? The only real options would seem to be Octavio Dotel and Joaquin Benoit. Dotel has looked good – but doesn’t seem to be able to get lefties out. Benoit (aside from the fact that he does not want to close) hasn’t looked sharp this year either – despite the 16 strikeouts in 10 games and 3.86 ERA. His WHIP is 2.25 – due more to an alarming number of walks than his .545 BABIP. I’d say I have a little more optimism that Benoit will right the ship (since BABIP will regress and he is getting guys to swing and miss) than Valverde – but I wouldn’t describe what I have as confidence at this point.
As I wrote in my analysis of the 2008 debacle – it wasn’t underachieving power bats that really made the team bad. It was the complete and utter collapse of a couple of blue-chip starters and the most important guys in the bullpen. If you’re looking for evidence that the sky is falling… quit blaming Ryan Raburn and his April bat – look no farther than Jose Valverde, Joaquin Benoit, Max Scherzer (7.77 ERA, 50 baserunners in 24 1/3) and Rick Porcello (6.45 ERA, .863 OPS allowed).