Jose Valverde's April return to the Detroit Tigers was a great relief, not just for him, but for the whole team.
His first appearance was a perfect ninth inning to secure a 7-5 win over the Kansas City Royals on April 24. He's since earned six saves—though he also blew two opportunities—while allowing just seven hits through 12.2 innings with a 3.55 ERA.
Valverde hasn't just stabilized his mechanics, but the lineup as well. After suffering four blown saves from four different relievers in April, the Tigers are happy to have their ninth-inning ace back on the hill.
Valverde expressed his exuberance to Lynn Henning of The Detroit News saying, “Not just myself...The team is winning. Everyone’s happy.”
Valverde underwent a change in mechanics, altering his approach and his delivery. Rather than starting his windup from the waist, he now preps with his hands above his head, allowing for a more comfortable flow and a consistent arm slot. The biggest result is the increased velocity on his fastball. His celebrated antics on the mound (shown right) haven't gone anywhere.
His return to the lineup has alleviated a lot of pressure in the bullpen and cemented roles for its inhabitants. Left-handed pitchers Drew Smyly and Phil Coke can return to their situational responsibilities while Joaquin Benoit can focus on his set-up duties. As a result, Detroit’s bullpen ranks eighth in the league with a .231 batting average against.
Eventually the Tigers will get healthy, and Valverde’s significance will allow for further solidity. Last season, the bullpen saw specific assignments for three primary relievers: The seventh inning belonged to Al Alburquerque; the eighth inning set-up role was dedicated to Joaquin Benoit, and the ninth was Valverde’s stage.
Although he is well removed from his 49-for-49 save season in 2011, he still has the makeup to be one of the better closers in the majors. He currently ranks 13th in the American League in saves after missing nearly all of April. However, he has a roller-coaster track record that keeps the fanbase uneasy and his manager pacing.
In 2012 he posted 35 saves and five blown saves, each ranking sixth highest in the American League. Since 2010, he has posted 110 saves in 118 attempts for a league-best 93.2 conversion percentage.
After last October's collapse—one in which he posted an ERA over 30 in just 2.2 postseason innings—Valverde saw his career slipping away at the same time that his team earned a World Series berth. After the San Francisco Giants swept Detroit, Valverde was out of a job.
When spring training rolled around the Tigers confidence in 22-year-old rookie Bruce Rondon was fading. They started the regular season with a closer-by-committee approach that resulted in four blown saves from four different relievers. In came Valverde, and since his return, the team is 22-16 and holds a 2.5-game lead over the Cleveland Indians in the Central Division.
It’s not to say that a superstar closer is what it takes to get the job done. The Tigers are adept at every other level of pitching, but what they had lacked was an experienced closer. Regardless of past performances, good or bad, they have a proven commodity in Valverde, one with whom they’re familiar.
That goes leaps and bounds above his own leaps on the mound.