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It was reported by SI’s Jon Heyman early yesterday on Twitter that the Tigers are expected to pick up the $9M option on Jose Valverde to return as the closer for the club in 2012 after converting all 49 of his save opportunities in 2011. The immediate I-hate-closers-in-fantasy-baseball guy in my brain immediately screamed, “Why??!!” Admittedly though, it does not help that I closely follow a team (the Rays) that has spent as much on their primary closer over the past seven seasons as the Yankees and Red Sox have spent to pay their closer for just this past season.

BP2011 had this to say about Valverde:

Papa Grande was unhittable early and unspeakable late, with opponents batting .125/.226/.172 before the All-Star break and .263/.381/.453 afterward. Elbow tendinitis that eventually caused him to miss some time in September probably had something to do with his ineffectiveness, but health will always be an issue for Valverde. The overall results were similar to his 2009 numbers, with more walks and a smidge fewer strikeouts, but the ways in which he achieved them were quite different. Valverde threw his legendary splitter twice as often as usual, relying on his mid-90s fastball less than half the time, and as a result he morphed into a certifiable ground-ball machine. The Tigers don’t care how he gets it done so long as he’s healthy and keeps runs off the board, both of which are open questions going into his final guaranteed year.

Valverde was a guy I targeted in many of the mock drafts that I participated in this past off-season where I am almost forced to take a closer. I found him to be a bit underrated for his consistency heading into the season and, knowing that Leyland is very loyal to his closer and usage patterns, helped when projecting 35-plus saves for Valverde in 2011, as I aimed for the middle of his saves totals from 2007 to 2010. He ended up returning to the 40-plus saves plateau for the third time in five seasons while not blowing any saves but having several implosions in non-save situations throughout the season. Just how bad were his save/non-save splits this season?

SPLIT

ERA

WHIP

BA

OBP

SLG

K/9

Save Sit.

0.55

0.94

.154

.251

.219

9.2

Non-save

5.79

1.71

.280

.380

.398

7.3

If Leyland would have only looked at those numbers and not used Valverde 26 times in non-save situations, he would have had an Eckersley-like season of overall domination.  Instead, we are left with a pitcher who had just the fourth-highest PVORP in his own bullpen now being paid more than everyone on the staff but Justin Verlander.  Phil Coke (15.9), Al Alburquerque (8.8), and Joaquin Benoit (6.4) all had higher PVORP scores than Valverde, but since saves get points and PVORP is a scoring category in maybe two leagues in this hemisphere, Valverde was the big dollar fantasy earner as the Player Forecast Manager valued his efforts at $25 in 15-team mixed leagues this season. In fact, no other closer had as much fantasy value as Valverde did, which will likely lead to draftees paying top dollar for his services next season, even with some expected regression in the fold.  Will it be wise to spend that kind of money on him?

There are a few warning signs out there regarding Valverde’s numbers despite the perfect 49-for-49 season.  According to the data at Texasleaguers.com, Valverde has maintained his fastball velocity, but that’s about the only thing he maintained in 2011. This past season, his strikeout rate was a career low. In fact, his strikeout percentage has been in decline for three straight seasons now from 25.6 percent in 2009 to 24.3 percent in 2010 and finally to 22.9 percent this season. His swinging strikeout rate fell below 20 percent for the first time in his pro career, dropping nearly three full percentage points from 20.8 in 2010 to just 17.9 this season. Valverde’s percentage of pitches thrown within the strike zone fell over three full percentage points as well, as his 40.9 percent was below the league average for Zone%. Lastly, his strikeout-to-walk ratio was right at 2.0, which is not a strong rate for relievers.

On the plus side, he has only had one stint on the disabled list over the past three seasons, and the results have been outstanding. As good as he was this season, he was nearly equally outstanding in each of the two previous seasons.   The last guy to have this kind of perfect season was Brad Lidge, but he serves as a cautionary tale as his numbers quickly went south after the strong 2008 season. If you look at how Lidge and Valverde have pitched at the similar stages of their careers, their K/BB and declining strikeout rates are near mirror images of one another. 2011 was the sixth straight season that Valverde’s strikeout per nine innings has declined, and while it is still a strong rate at nearly one per inning, it is tough to see that trend reversing as he approaches his mid-30’s.

Valverde is not your average pitcher that you can just look at metrics such as LOB% and BABIP and point at regression. He has stranded 80 percent or more of his batters in four of the past five seasons, and his highest BABIP over the past five seasons was just .281. If Leyland would learn to just wake up Papa Grande when a save was needed and let him get his work in on the side rather than in meaningless games, he could get another very productive season out of Valverde in 2012. Unfortunately for Valverde owners, Leyland is a stubborn manager who has earned the right to do what he does based on his track record of success. Asking for another 40-plus save season is a tad unrealistic, but it is tough to rule out given the fact he has done it three of the past five seasons and for a different team each time. The only fear would be if the Tigers stumble out of the gate, are not contending in July, and Valverde is dealt to a team needing bullpen help in front of their closer; it is unlikely the Tigers will chance offering him arbitration as that one-year tender could be the best offer Valverde gets this time next season.

Take Valverde for saves and the strong strikeout totals while they are still there and hope that someone plants a bug in Leyland’s ear about Valverde’s splits in game situations, which would help Valverde gain some fantasy value in his ratios that he will potentially lose as his strikeout rate continues to decline.

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hotstatrat
10/28
Is this tongue and cheek? Is there really such a thing as a Major League pitcher who only performs well when in a save situation as compared to a tie, if not under any random game situation?
moonlightj
10/28
Some closers talk about their disdain for working in non-save situations as they don't have the same type of intensity. Tough to quantify overall, but when you see a guy like Valverdy have continual implosions and see his opponents' OBP rise 4 straight seasons in non-save situations, you begin to wonder if it is worth sending him out there to hold 4 run leads or pitch in garbage time just to get work in.
vtadave
10/30
Good stuff Jason. Look forward to meeting you in Arizona next week (I think you're there).
moonlightj
10/30
Thanks - I will indeed be in Arizona next weekend (Fri-Mon)
vtadave
10/30
Awesome getting a -1 for that comment. Thanks. As for Valverde, the Tigers may very well have been able to save a little by declining the option and trolling the free agent market for a replacement, but it's not a lot of money and on a one-year deal for a team with a decent-sized budget, I get it.
DetroitDale
10/31
The Tigers were hoping that by now they'd have younger cheaper options at closer than Valverde among their boatload of inhouse drafted pitchers and swag from the Granderson deal, but Joel Zumaya just can't get healthy, Ryan Perry and Daniel Schlereth aren't ready, Charlie Furbush and Chance Ruffin were shipped off to get Doug Fister, and Al Albuqerque never looked right after that concussion. Still too soon to give up hope on any of them, but also not the time to roll the dice in the free agent market. Plus, signing another free agent closer costs them another compensation pick better spent filling the gaping hole at second base or someone to hold down third until Nick Castellanos is ready other than team mascot Brandon Inge. I do think it would be smart for the Tigers (or any team for that matter) to scour the available relievers and see if you can get something from the scrap heap who can either (a) give you quality innings or (b) flip at the deadline for useful prospects to a contender desperate for bullpen help.
AWBenkert
5/12
A mirror image is the opposite of something, not something that is similar or identical.