Can Jose Valverde Rediscover His Closer Dominance with the Tigers in 2013?

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Can Jose Valverde Rediscover His Closer Dominance with the Tigers in 2013?

When Detroit Tigers lefty Phil Coke let Wednesday's game against the Minnesota Twins slip away with a blown save, a suspicion held by Tigers fans and the baseball-loving community in general was confirmed: Detroit's bullpen isn't perfect.

The Tigers have responded by bringing back an old friend who was about as far away from perfect as a pitcher can possibly be the last time he was wearing a Tigers uniform. And going forward, it's unlikely that he's going to do anything to nudge this year's Tigers bullpen any closer to perfection.

The word straight from the team's Twitter account is that Papa Grande himself is coming back. Jose Valverde has been signed to a minor league contract:

Lakeland, for the record, is Detroit's High-A affiliate. Patrick Reusse of 1500 ESPN has heard from Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski that Valverde is going to throw a bit at Lakeland before presumably moving on to Triple-A Toledo.

As of now, there's no timetable for his return to the big club.

I'm guessing the Tigers are going to be in no rush to get Valverde to the majors, as they surely want to be 100-percent certain that the pitcher they saw late last year is a distant memory.

Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports
Valverde surrendered two homers and coughed up a four-run lead in his only appearance in the ALCS against the Yankees.

The last time the Tigers saw Valverde on the mound was when he allowed nine earned runs in only 2.2 postseason innings, forcing the club to make do with Coke as its closer. 

Valverde wasn't much good before that either. The final month of the 2012 season saw him post a 5.02 ERA, walk five and strike out only eight in 14.1 innings of work. 

So how's Papa Grande looking now?

According to his agent, not too shabby. Here's what Scott Boras told Ken Rosenthal of FoxSports.com in late March:

This is all well and good, but velocity wasn't really a major issue for Valverde last year.

According to FanGraphs, both Baseball Info Solutions and PITCHf/x clocked Valverde's average fastball at over 93 miles per hour in 2012, only a few ticks below where he was in 2011 when he didn't blow a single save. Also, PITCHf/x data shows that he topped out at over 97 miles per hour.

Valverde's real issue last year had less to do with how hard he was throwing his pitches and more to do with where he was throwing them. Here's what ESPN's Keith Law (Insider subscription required) wrote about Valverde in November:

Valverde's self-immolation in October was just an extreme end to a season that saw his command slipping and his splitter less effective, reducing him to ordinary reliever status despite the high save totals and so-called "perfect" season in 2012.

Valverde actually threw more strikes last year than he did in 2011, as his strike percentage climbed from 62 to 63 percent and his looking-strike percentage climbed from 26 to 28 percent, according to Baseball-Reference.com.

One problem, however, is that Valverde had an issue throwing first-pitch strikes. His first-pitch strike percentage fell from 61 percent to 57 percent, meaning he was working from behind in the count more than he was in 2011. Thus, he was forcing himself to challenge hitters more often.

It's no surprise, then, that Valverde's swinging-strike percentage went way down from 19 percent to 12 percent. Coincidentally, his contact percentage soared from 75 percent to 83 percent.

Valverde's splitter did indeed play a part in his demise. Here's some data from BrooksBaseball.net that can attest to that.

Year Swings Whiffs Balls in Play
2011 46.18 14.89 18.32
2012 52.40 13.46 22.12

So Valverde's splitter got swung at more often, hit more often and missed less often. That's not exactly the kind of mix a pitcher is going for when he throws a splitter. If it's not a swing-and-miss pitch, it's largely useless.

We're all probably going to be hearing a lot about Valverde's radar-gun readings in the upcoming weeks, but Tigers fans shouldn't get their hopes up if it's reported that he's throwing in the mid-90s consistently. The more important aspects of his comeback will involve his command and ability to manipulate the count, as well as the effectiveness of his splitter.

It's going to be very hard to get a read on these things. Reports could come out that Valverde is getting swings-and-misses left and right, but we'll all have to bear in mind that he'll be doing so against minor league hitters. It's going to be extremely difficult to assess exactly how far he's come since last year, if at all, until he's on a major league mound facing major league hitters.

And to that end, the clock is ticking. MLB.com's Jason Beck says that Valverde's deal has an opt-out clause that he can trigger on May 5. If he's not in the majors by then, he can choose to try his luck elsewhere.

Will Jose Valverde be Detroit's closer by early May?

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Trying their luck is all the Tigers are doing in this situation, of course. Re-upping with Valverde may come off as a desperation move, but I look at it as more of a "What the heck?" move. Valverde rediscovering his form over the next few weeks is not Detroit's only hope for its closer situation. If he doesn't pan out, they still have Bruce Rondon waiting in the wings.

There is hope for Valverde, just as there is for any player looking to make a comeback after a rough year.  Beyond the disconcerting things we've already talked about, though, the circumstances just aren't very good.

For one, we're talking about a relief pitcher who's had to work very hard in recent years. Valverde worked a career-high 72.1 innings in 2011, and then tacked on 7.1 more innings in the postseason. He had a heavy workload again last year, with 69 innings in the regular season and then 2.3 more in October.

For two, we're talking about an older player, as Valverde recently turned 35. According to a recent study done by J.C. Bradbury for Baseball Prospectus, that's well past the age when ballplayers hit their peaks.

Combine these things with how much trouble Valverde had with his command and his splitter last year, and you're not left with a portrait of a guy who's going to save Detroit's bullpen from its early-season misery.

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter. 

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