About 15 minutes ago, no one wanted to employ Jose Valverde. Now a contender has him facing Gordon/Escobar/Butler in the ninth. OK...
— Joe Sheehan (@joe_sheehan) April 25, 2013
The last we saw of Jose Valverde, he was buried deep in the Detroit Tigers' bullpen in the World Series, Jim Leyland having lost confidence in him after he'd lost one playoff game against the A's and blown a four-run lead against the New York Yankees in another. Midway through the postseason, Leyland dumped his Proven Closer, who had recorded 35 saves in the regular season, and gave final-out duties to Phil Coke, a pitcher who had allowed a .396 average to right-handed batters.
Obviously, there is no time in the playoffs to let a pitcher work through a slump, so Leyland had little choice but to go with the hot hand, or what he perceived to be the hot hand. It wasn't an easy decision to make, and you have to give Leyland credit for making the adjustment.
But this is still modern baseball and managers still love having that security blanket for the ninth inning, so even though the Tigers elected not to re-sign Valverde as a free agent -- with good reason, as he just wasn't all that good in 2012, no matter what the saves column may say -- here he is, back with the Tigers, and there he was on Wednesday night, saving a 7-5 victory over the Kansas City Royals to push the Tigers back over .500.
The official record says Valverde cruised through an 18-pitch inning, retiring Alex Gordon, Alcides Escobar and Billy Butler. A closer look reveals he still has a lot to prove before Leyland grows comfortable using him. He threw 18 four-seam fastballs, and while he was clocked as high as 95 mph, he didn't induce a single swing-and-miss. Gordon flew out to left fielder Andy Dirks just shy of the warning track, Escobar hit a hard grounder to second base and Butler flew out to Dirks on the warning track. Valverde got the outs this time; we'll see about next time.
The bigger issue here is what Joe Sheehan alluded to above: Impatience in October makes sense, but why the impatience in April? Nobody wanted Valverde on their team, or, to be fair, not at Valverde's asking price or given his desire to be a closer. So after the Tigers handed the job to rookie Bruce Rondon (who lost it before spring training ended), and then went to a bullpen by committee, and then to Coke, and then to Joaquin Benoit, and then I think John Hiller and Willie Hernandez got opportunities ... suddenly Valverde is their guy again? Explain. The Tigers lost confidence in the entire bullpen after 18 games?
The kicker is Detroit started the season 9-9, but the bullpen was hardly to blame. The pen was 1-4, but two of those losses came in the 12th and 13th innings, hardly the fault of the relievers. The Tigers had lost just one game when leading heading into the eighth or ninth, and that loss in Minnesota in the second game was facilitated by Austin Jackson and Dirks miscommunicating on a fly ball.
I get that the Tigers had no Proven Closer and managers love to have one. I wrote a couple weeks ago about the closer myth -- most of them come from nowhere anyway -- and the Tigers probably would have been fine settling on Coke or Benoit or Al Alburquerque.
Now they have their PC, although I'm not exactly sure what it accomplishes. Let's say Valverde scuffles through another mediocre season but does well enough to hold on to the job, and the Tigers return to the playoffs. This is a guy who has pitched in 14 career postseason games and allowed 16 runs. Does that sound like a security blanket?