4 Reasons Detroit Tigers Must Replace Jose Valverde This Offseason
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With the Tigers headed to their second World Series in the last seven seasons, it may seem a bit premature to begin discussing potential offseason transactions.
But hey, we've got a little time to burn before Wednesday's kickoff of the October Classic.
Valverde is set to become a free agent in 2013, and his recent struggles in the 2012 postseason serve as only a portion of the evidence suggesting that his time in the D is up.
After a year of perfection in 2011 (49-for-49 converting saves), it seemed like a no-brainer for the Tigers to pick up his $9 million contract option for 2012. Few complaints were made when the team brought back their energetic closer who, despite issues in non-save situations, could do no wrong with the game on the line.
It's not easy arguing with perfection, but perhaps there were some statistical trends developing that were forecasting a down year for Valverde, who saw his ERA rise from 2.24 in 2011 to 3.78 in 2012.
Regardless of whether or not he contributes in the upcoming Fall Classic, here are four reasons the Tigers can't sensibly offer the pricey closer a contract to remain in Detroit for 2013.
The Numbers Aren't Adding Up Anymore
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Out of 15 closers that eclipsed the 30-save mark in 2012, only two failed to record as many or more strikeouts than innings pitched. Valverde was one of those two. None of the 10 closers with more saves than Papa Grande had an ERA as high as his, and only one (Cleveland Indians' Chris Perez) held an ERA of 3.00 or higher.
Back to the strikeouts, or lack thereof in Valverde's case, his average number of strikeouts over nine innings of work—or K/9—this season (6.26) was by far the lowest of his career and only the second time he's failed to average one strikeout per inning in 10 years of big-league pitching. 2011 was the first, with a K/9 of 8.59. In fact, Papa Grande's strikeout rate has declined each season since 2006.
According to FanGraphs, Valverde's percentage of stranded runners declined substantially this season, meaning (as his ERA will attest) more of those base runners crossed the plate rather than being left on base.
Of course, when you're not getting strikeouts, hitters putting more balls in play is a given. That alone increases the opponent's chances of producing runs. Valverde's "left on base percentage" of 65.3 percent dipped well below his usual standards and went down from 82.9 percent in 2011. Meaning, an extra 17.6 percent of base runners reached home plate this season than the year before.
Perhaps you can blame decreasing velocity on his fastball. I've got no numbers to back that up, but it hardly seems to have the same zip it used to. The 34-year-old has been at it awhile, and could simply be hitting a wall.
Either way, the numbers you'd like to be low are growing and the ones you want to rise are shrinking. All it seems to add up to is Valverde blowing saves, now in crucial situations.
Or even worse...
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Even when Valverde was going good, you'd be hard-pressed to find a Tigers fan who embraced the idea of sending the closer to the mound in a non-save situation.
For whatever reason, it's just not in his DNA to close out games in which his team isn't leading by one, two or three runs. If Detroit is behind, tied or winning by at least four, forget about it. You're in for a nerve-wracking experience one way or another.
Sure, throughout the course of a 162-game season, there will come situations where save opportunities are few and far between and the skipper is occasionally going to have to mix certain guys in just to prevent any potential rust from forming. Sometimes it can be difficult for a pitcher who is accustomed to high-pressure situations to focus when the game isn't "on the line".
But Valverde's history of allowing offensive onslaught's in non-save situations have cost the Tigers—or nearly cost them—on numerous occasions. Especially in the postseason.
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Speaking of non-save situations, Papa Grande found himself pitching his Tigers postseason debut in the 9th inning with a 5-1 lead in Game 2 of the ALDS against the Yankees in 2011. He allowed a home run, triple and a walk to his first three batters (in order) before narrowly escaping with a 5-3 win.
Valverde did come through with three saves from then until Game 4 of the ALCS against the Rangers. But it was his non-save situation failures once again rearing their ugly heads, this time in the form of four earned runs allowed in the 11th inning of a 3-3 game, a costly performance that would ultimately give Texas a crucial 3-1 lead in the series.
This year's playoff run has been excruciatingly painful to watch when it comes to the Tigers' closer.
Valverde's allowed seven earned runs in 2.1 innings of work (if you want to call it that) and forced Leyland to rely on lefty specialist Phil Coke to close out games in the ALCS. Valverde coughed up a 4-0 lead in the 9th inning of Game 2 by allowing four runs (on two home runs) and nearly costing Detroit the game. The four runs allowed by Valverde was twice as many runs as the rest of the Tigers' pitchers allowed the entire four-game series.
In Game 4 of the ALDS, it was Papa Grande coughing up a 3-1 lead to the A's, who would pull out the win in walk-off fashion. Instead of the Tigers having Justin Verlander for Game 1 of the ALCS, the reigning AL MVP was forced into a do-or-die Game 5 on the road to keep Detroit's playoff hopes alive.
Slice it how you want, but no franchise pays its closer $9 million to see him ultimately throw his manager into such an ill-timed predicament.
Closing out a baseball game is never easy, but when you make that kind of a yearly salary, you'd better at least make it look easy from time to time.
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Perhaps the reason Tigers' reliever Al Alburquerque kissed the baseball before the final out of Detroit's Game 2 ALDS win over the A's was to prove that, if given the closer's role in 2013, he could take Valverde's antics to another level.
Valverde seemingly tiptoes the line of excessive celebration with every successful pitch he makes, which Tigers fans have no qualms over so long as he's actually making pitches.
In all seriousness, if the Tigers decide to resolve this issue in-house rather than attempt to either resign Valverde or scour the list of upcoming free-agent closers, Alburquerque should get first dibs to fill the opening.
The 26-year-old was lights out in 2011 (43.1 IP, 67 K's, 6-1 record, 1.87 ERA, 1.15 WHIP) and squeezed in 13.1 innings in 2012 while giving up only one run in that span, despite coming off a nine-month recovery from elbow surgery.
Not only is he young and seemingly cold-blooded enough to handle the role, Alburquerque has a fastball that reached the 97-98 mph range before his elbow injury and a devastating slider that is basically untouchable when he's locating it well. One would think most of the missing velocity on his fastball should find its way back as he returns to form, however.
Detroit could spend some cash in free agency, but it's shaping up to be a weak class for closing pitchers and may not be worth the risk. The majority of qualifiers are either extremely deep into their careers, carry options that are likely to be exercised or have a concerning history of injuries.
If a veteran (perhaps Valverde included) could be had at a reasonable rate, it wouldn't hurt to bring him on board with the intentions of moving on to someone like Alburquerque if he struggles out of the gate.