Jim Leyland can't let Jose Valverde pitch another inning this season.
That's the text message I received from a good friend—and Detroit Tigers fan, naturally—on Saturday night (Oct. 13) after Valverde gave up four runs in Game 1 of the ALCS and allowed the New York Yankees to tie the score at 4-4.
UPDATE Sunday, 10/14 2:40ET: Valverde reportedly won't close Sunday against the Yankees, though manager Jim Leyland said he still considers him the closer.
Valverde was a time bomb ready to explode on the mound. The bomb went off in the ninth inning, as the Tigers closer attempted to save what looked like a comfortable 4-0 lead. Instead, Valverde confirmed the worst fears of the Tigers and their fans by serving up two-run home runs to both Ichiro Suzuki and Raul Ibanez.
"How many times can he do it?" was the call from Yankees broadcaster John Sterling after Ibanez hit yet another game-tying postseason homer. The exact same sentence was reverberating through the heads of Tigers fans, but in reference to Valverde.
For the second straight appearance, Valverde gave up multiple runs and blew a save for Detroit in a playoff game.
There wouldn't have been a Game 5 in the ALDS between the Tigers and Oakland Athletics if Valverde hadn't suffered a three-run, four-hit meltdown trying to close out a 3-1 lead in Game 4. Justin Verlander would have been able to pitch Game 1 versus the Yankees, rather than having to go in Game 5 against the A's, had Valverde not blown what would have been a series-clinching save.
Then, on Saturday night, Valverde was handed as comfortable a lead as the Tigers could ever hope to have in the ninth inning of a playoff game at Yankee Stadium. Tigers fans surely thought to themselves that Valverde couldn't blow this one. He might give up two or three runs, but not four. The Yankees hadn't scored four runs in any of their past four postseason games.
But as we've learned several times this season—with the A's and Baltimore Orioles making the playoffs, the Rangers blowing a five-game in the AL West, and the Red Sox trading Adrian Gonzalez and $127 million—just about anything is possible.
The Tigers managed to rally after seeing their closer melt down and a seemingly solid lead disappear. Detroit won Game 1 in 12 innings, 6-4, thanks largely to Nick Swisher misplaying a Delmon Young line drive to right field, which turned into an RBI double.
Yet after the game, all anyone on the Tigers' side of the series could talk about was Valverde blowing yet another save. (On the Yankees' side and from a national perspective, the story was obviously Derek Jeter's fractured ankle and the end of his season.)
The Detroit News' Lynn Henning didn't waste any time in getting right to the point during a postgame press conference with Leyland. What is the Tigers manager going to do with Valverde? How can he possibly pitch him in the ninth inning again?
"We are going to discuss this as a staff, and now is not the time to discuss it," Leyland said to Henning. "We haven't really made any decisions."
"We want to put our heads together and discuss it first," he continued, "and get together as a coaching staff and talk about it. But I don't really have any final information on it yet."
Reporters, analysts and fans see what they want to see and hear what they want to hear when faced with vague remarks from managers and coaches about roster decisions. But it sure sounded like Leyland was all but saying "yes" when asked if he was going to replace Valverde as the Tigers closer for the rest of this postseason.
Understandably, Leyland wanted to take the time to make a reasoned decision after consulting with his coaches and general manager Dave Dombrowski. Rendering a verdict on Valverde in the heat of the moment, with postgame emotions still high, wasn't the best course of action, even if the answer seemed obvious.
As Henning explained in his article, replacing Valverde is really the only decision Leyland can make in light of his recent performance. But it's not an easy move to make. The Tigers' relief corps isn't full of interchangeable arms that can each assume any role necessary.
Detroit has set up its bullpen around Joaquin Benoit pitching the eighth inning and Valverde closing out the game in the ninth. Both relievers are being paid a combined $14.5 million to protect leads and save ballgames. Octavio Dotel was signed as a free agent this season to be the seventh-inning reliever; a bridge between the starting pitcher and the late-inning closers.
If Leyland replaces Valverde with Dotel in the ninth, which seems like the most logical move, who takes that seventh-inning, middle-relief role? Does Valverde take those innings? Wouldn't he have to? Or will he be buried, never to see the mound again for the rest of the postseason? That might be preferable for Tigers fans, but it leaves the bullpen an arm short.
Al Alburquerque certainly has the strikeout stuff teams love to have in a closer.
But that would take Alburquerque out of a crucial middle-relief role in which he may be called upon to pitch in high-leverage scenarios before the ninth inning. Sabermetricians believe a team's best reliever should be used in situations other than those of saving ballgames. That's exactly how Leyland uses Alburquerque (and Joel Zumaya before him, when healthy).
However, with a walk rate of 5.4 per nine innings, Alburquerque simply puts too many runners on base to be considered a reliable closer. He could walk with the bases loaded just as easily as strike out the side.
Another option Leyland could consider is Rick Porcello, who isn't in the Tigers' playoff rotation but was included on the ALCS roster to provide long relief and supplement the starting pitching.
Porcello was Detroit's worst starter during the regular season and doesn't strike out as many batters as might be preferred in a closer. But he is capable of throwing strikeout stuff and was regarded as that sort of pitcher out of high school before the Tigers converted him into a sinkerball pitcher, presumably to save wear and tear on his young arm.
A sinkerballer might even be preferred at Yankee Stadium, where any fly ball to right field has a chance of going into the stands.
One more reason Porcello is an attractive alternative as closer is that the 23-year-old right-hander is never better than during his first encounter versus opposing lineups.
In his first time through an opposing batting order, Porcello allows a slash average of .271/.313/.366. The second time around, batters hit .284/.310/.328. On his third time through a lineup, batters have a .330/.361/.457 average. And it gets even worse from there.
So Leyland does have some possibilities to consider for replacing Valverde, even if doing so would knock his bullpen out of its normal routine. At this point, that might be exactly what the Tigers bullpen needs, because the status quo hasn't been working and will very likely cost Detroit a playoff series if it continues as is.
Valverde has had an excellent three seasons as the Tigers closer, racking up 110 saves. That includes going 49-for-49 in save opportunities last season. But sports truly is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately proposition. If Valverde had any doubts about that, he only needs to look into the opposing dugout at Alex Rodriguez.
Leyland has shown loyalty to his closer. He's stuck with the plan that he and his coaches laid out for the bullpen. But too much is now at stake for the Tigers manager not to make a change. Valverde has shown he can't be the Tigers closer anymore.
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