The final line will tell you that Jose Valverde got a win, a loss and a save in the three-game set against the Chicago White Sox. If you actually watched the games, you’ll also know that his win he still gave up a hit before the loss was pulled from the abyss by Jhonny Peralta‘s walkoff home run and that even in that save Valverde let two runners get on and went to a 3-0 count on Gordon Beckham before finally pulling things together. Not a good sign when the manager has to make a call to get somebody up and throwing while your closer is on the mound – especially not when relievers 2, 3 & 4 have already pitched (Benoit, Dotel and Coke, of course). It has been about a week since I posted “Worrying About The Big Potato” on MCB, and these three games are the only action Valverde has seen. Final tally? 3 innings pitched: 2 earned runs, one walk, four strikeouts with five hits – one of which was a home run. He also allowed a stolen base in each of those three games.
Things – to be frank – are looking increasingly grim on the Potato front, despite the improvement in K/BB. The chief concern – aside from the fact that he has often failed to locate his fastball with any consistency whatsoever – is that Valverde has struggled mightily against left-handed hitters of any stripe. This extreme split differential appeared last year () and has only grown in 2012. It was righty Alex Rios that he gave up a leadoff single to today, and lefties Kosuke Fukudome and A.J. Pierzynski failed to get a hit off of him (though Fukudome did draw a walk) but this has been the exception rather than the rule. On Saturday, Valverde gave up a single to lefty Alejandro De Aza, retired righty Alexei Ramirez and then gave up a two-run shot to lefty Adam Dunn. He did retire righty Konerko and (inferior) lefty Pierzynski to end the top-half of the inning, but the damage was “Dunn”.
Going into today’s game – Valverde had held righties to a .167/.259/.208 but allowed lefties to dance around the bases to the tune of .455/.519/.909. Yes – this IS due in large part to a difference in BABIP – but sizeable L-R BABIP splits are both common and indicative of a genuine inability to deceive or overpower same-sided hitters. And anyway – it isn’t exactly all BABIP: both of the home runs he has allowed this year have been to lefties and his K/BB rate (prior to todays game) was 2 against righties and 0.5 against lefties.
Valverde was able to succeed last year, despite a WHIP much higher than you’d like to see, by picking and choosing his outs – he was so good against righties (and only moderately unimpressive) against lefties that while he let a lot of runners threaten he did a pretty good job of finishing out the inning. If he’s not able to moderate the damage that lefties deal in any meaningful way, I question whether he can continue to close (or fit into any defined-inning role). This sort of thing isn’t exactly unheard of – after all Octavio Dotel had quite a good year overall in 2011 but wasn’t thought of as a viable option for teams with closer vacancies due to his .410/.845 OPS split – wasn’t a fluke either, this year it sits at .346/.899 (as of Sunday morning, at any rate).
Valverde’s .356 OBP-allowed against lefties last year wasn’t very good, and far worse than the .213 he held righties to, but it wasn’t so atrocious that he couldn’t make it through a L-R-L-R-L five-man set without allowing a run (or two or three). A .519 OBP-allowed is a different story, as is the power numbers lefties have displayed against him thus far (his ISO-allowed against lefties was .101 last year as compared to .454 this year).
So… my concern was there and it is growing. The Tigers don’t have great other options for the ninth inning (few teams, other than the Yankees, do) – Dotel has the same flaws and Benoit (in addition to not wanting the job) has had his own struggles this spring. At this point, what I would argue for is a sort of closer platoon to limit the damage that lefties can do to the Tigers late-and-close. Papa Grande is certainly going to have to face the occasional lefty – but if the first three he’s facing are De Aza, Ramirez and Dunn the best option would seem to be any available southpaw rather than Valverde. In an ideal situation, this would likely mean a considerable amount of partial-inning duty in the 9th – Valverde could come on to retire Konerko for the last out or somebody like Below could come on to retire a De Aza if – for example – Valverde had walked Beckham today. This kind of approach would necessitate a third bullpen lefty, but we’ve got plenty of those laying around in AAA and they have better stuff than their righty counterparts.
Unfortunately, Jim Leyland is not an outside-the-box thinker. Leyland likes his roles and he is both loath to change them and loath to change them with out defining crisp new roles. It will take a bit more than this, I think, for Leyland to pull the plug on Valverde as closer (though many closers have lost their jobs for less) but if he does I am sure it will be to install another permanent closer (likely Benoit or Dotel).