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April 25, 2013

Overthinking It

Why Jose Valverde is Still Getting Saves for Detroit

by Ben Lindbergh


Jose Valverde recorded a save against the Royals last October 1st, in his final regular-season game of 2012. He also recorded a save against the Royals yesterday, in his first regular-season game of 2013. Between those two games, Valverde lost his job as closer, spent six months looking for work, and finally re-signed with the same team, which supposedly had no interest in bringing him back. Because the trip was so circuitous, it’s worth recounting how he got from point A to point B, even though the two points look so similar.

During the winter, when we’re starved for baseball and wondering where free agents will end up, we treat each new report and rumor as if it might mean something. Where there’s smoke, there’s sometimes a signing. Of course, most rumors don’t lead to confirmed reports. They’re based on bad information, or good information that goes stale. They get published, tweeted, and blogged about briefly before being replaced by the next rumor, which usually has just as short a shelf life. It's hard to ignore the mostly non-news in the moment, but when the offseason is over and we know where all the free agents fell, it’s fun (and often illustrative) to sift through the conflicting reports and rumors and wonder where they came from. So that’s what we have here: an annotated timeline of how Jose Valverde wound up at the back of the same bullpen.

***

September 26
Valverde prepares to cash in as an established closer on the open market by hiring Scott Boras as his agent. Boras starts salivating about the commission he’ll receive on a new contract for a successful stopper on a playoff team.

September 27
Boras wastes no time in firing up the publicity machine. In making a case for why his new client can continue to be successful, Boras says, “Closers are good in their mid-30s, not in their mid-20s.” Like a lot of the bombastic Boras’ statements, this one seems like a stretch, but it’s ambiguous enough that it’s difficult to call it conclusively false. Boras is a salesman, so he’s not above a certain amount of spin, but outright lies are bad for business. There’s probably some stat that supports this pronouncement buried deep in a Boras binder, but it's tough to tell what it is. Really, it’s pretty hard to prove that players in their mid-30s are better at anything as a group than players 10 years younger.

If Boras’ contention were true, it would be because it takes time for potential closers to prove that they’re reliable enough to assume the role, and because bad closers have lost their jobs by the time they reach their mid-30s, leaving only the best closers still saving games. The evidence is flimsy, even so. Here’s the percentage of total saves recorded by pitchers of each age group over the last 25 years, which also happens to be the period since Dennis Eckersley became a closer and created copycats:

The highest percentage of saves was recorded by pitchers in their late 20s. Totals for pitchers in their mid-20s and mid-30s were roughly the same. Among retired pitchers who recorded at least 100 saves in that 25-year stretch, the average peak season, as judged by WARP, came at age 28. (In some cases, those seasons may have come before those pitchers became closers, since WARP isn’t influenced by leverage.) Maybe Boras meant that closers in their mid-30s are more effective, on an inning-per-inning basis, than closers in their mid-20s, which could be true, given that the remaining members of the former group are the strongest survivors of the latter one. Whatever he meant, the way the rest of the winter played out suggests that no one found his spiel in support of old closers particularly persuasive.

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Related Content:  Jose Valverde,  Closer,  Tigers

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