Detroit Tigers Won't Win the AL Pennant Without Jose Valverde in 2011 Form
In 2011, Jose Valverde was nearly perfect.
In his first year with the Detroit Tigers, he flawlessly stabilized the back end of the bullpen. He converted 49 saves in 49 chances and was named an American League All-Star.
Valverde had a 2.24 ERA in 72.1 innings (75 appearances) last season—striking out 69 batters and walking 34—helping the Tigers win their first division title since 1987.
The Tigers' Cy Young and MVP award winner, Justin Verlander, thanked Valverde during his MVP acceptance speech for his exceptional work.
Valverde was named the 2011 Major League Baseball Delivery Man of the Year—an honor given to the league's most outstanding relief pitcher—and was expected to have similar success in 2012.
But so far this season, Valverde hasn't come close to matching his efforts from a year ago.
In 15.2 innings in 16 appearances this season, Valverde has a 4.60 ERA, has already blown two saves and walked 11 of the 72 batters he's face.
While Valverde is struggling to find his control, the rest of the Tigers haven't picked up his slack and have stumbled out to a disappointing 17-18 start.
The Tigers are in extreme trouble if Valverde doesn't return to 2011 form.
Here are the five reasons Detroit has no chance to advance to the World Series if Valverde continues to struggle:
1. Inconsistent Offense
With the addition of Prince Fielder and key returning stars like reigning AL batting champion Miguel Cabrera, the Tigers were expected to be one of the most dangerous offensive teams in baseball.
But Fielder and Cabrera have both suffered through 0-for-22 slumps this season. Collectively, the Tigers haven't put things together at the plate, averaging 4.05 runs per game, good for just 14th in MLB and eighth in the A.L.
With no ability to manufacture runs, Detroit will live and die with its power numbers. Through 35 games this season, the power hasn't come alive.
The Tigers are 15th in the major leagues in home runs (31), 23rd in extra-base hits (90), 12th in average (.251), 17th in on-base percentage (.311) and 15th in slugging (.388).
Of Detroit's 17 losses, 10 of them have come by two runs or less. In the seventh inning or later, the Tigers have only averaged 1.17 runs.
If a team isn't scoring runs, especially late in games, it puts a lot of pressure on the bullpen and especially the closer to perform flawlessly.
2. Unreliable Bullpen
If setup relievers don't do their jobs, it becomes exponentially more difficult for a closer to sustain success.
Excluding Valverde, the Tigers bullpen has a 5-7 record and is toward the bottom of MLB with an ERA of 5.87.
Detroit has five relievers with 5.00-plus ERAs, including rookies Luke Putkonen (12.46) and Colin Balester (6.32).
The Tigers acquired journeyman Octavio Dotel in the offseason, but the 38-year-old has a 3.65 ERA and given up four walks in 12.1 innings of work.
Dotel was acquired to complement Joaquin Benoit, who the Tigers signed after a breakout season in 2009 with the Tampa Bay Rays.
Benoit struggled last season and hasn't rebounded so far this year with a 3.07 ERA.
The Tigers only have a couple starters who are capable of throwing seven-plus innings on a consistent basis, so the bullpen has received its share of work.
As a whole, Detroit's relievers have underachieved and made Valverde's job that much harder.
3. Nobody Else to Close
In 2006, it looked like the Tigers had their closer of the future in hard-throwing Joel Zumaya.
Zumaya, who had a 1.94 ERA in 62 appearances in '06, routinely topped 100 mph with his fastball and mixed in a nasty curve that left hitters confused.
But because of a string of bizarre injuries, Zumaya became an afterthought, and hasn't taken a major league mound since 2010.
Detroit has had an ongoing closing problem the last several years.
Fernando Rodney, Detroit's previous closer, was an adventure every time he entered games for the Tigers. He was erratic and unpredictable most of his time in Detroit, but after his best year—37 saves in 2009—the Tigers failed to re-sign him, and he departed for Los Angeles.
So the Tigers are left with only Valverde, who is more than enough when he's playing well.
But if Valverde is struggling, who does Detroit turn to?
No one else on the Tigers roster has successfully closed games over an extended period of time, and the Tigers don't have any minor league prospects who seem ready to successfully embrace the closing role.
4. Valverde's Presence
Valverde's nicknames are Papa Grande and the Big Potato.
While nicknames don't win baseball games, Valverde's fun-loving, crazy antics provide a presence unlike anyone else in the league.
Valverde is one of the few players in MLB who looks to truly have fun every time he steps on the field, and there's no substitution for that.
His energy is contagious.
Valverde's presence relaxes the guys behind him, and reminds everyone how much fun it is to play a game for a living.
But when he's struggling, the atmosphere is a little deflated.
If he's giving up runs, he doesn't have a chance to unleash the Big Potato antics on opposing hitters. People want to see his larger-than-life personality come out, but so far this season, there has just been something off.
No team has made it to the World Series in the last several years without a reliable closer.
Last season, the St. Louis Cardinals won a World Championship behind closer Fernando Salas, who had 24 saves and a 2.28 ERA in 75 innings.
In 2010, the San Fransisco's zany closer Brian Wilson led the Giants to a World Series title with 48 saves and a 1.81 ERA.
In 2009, Mariano Rivera earned his fifth World Series ring with the Yankees, earning 44 saves and an ERA of 1.76.
Phillies closer Brad Lidge helped Philadelphia win the 2008 World Series, with a 2-0 record, a 1.95 ERA and 41 saves.
The list continues, including Jonathan Papelbon, Tom Gordon, Keith Foulke and other All-Star closers.
The closer is one of the most important players on a roster, and if they struggle for an extended period of time, it's almost impossible for a team to sustain success.