Posted by: Larry Smith Jr. | January 15, 2010

Tigers Sign Valverde

Yesterday the Tigers made official the much-rumored signing of Jose Valverde, formerly of the Houston Astros.

As is par for the course with Tigers related moves, I go through a phase of initial reaction, meditation, consultation with others whose opinions I trust (even if I don’t always agree), and then an “official opinion”.   Usually this phase takes anywhere from one to six hours, depending on the impact of the move.   Also, when certain moves are overwhelmingly poor or overwhelmingly great this cycle may cease to exist completely.

With regard to Valverde, we’ve reached the “official opinion” stage.   And what is most official, is that I am officially confused by the Tigers this off-season.   They spent most of the top rounds of the 2008 draft taking as much close-to-MLB ready bullpen talent they could find, with Ryan Perry already on the big club and Satterwhite and Weinhardt fairly close.  Jacobson was traded to Baltimore for Aubrey Huff last year.  They went on to trade Curtis Granderson and Edwin Jackson in a deal that netted them another relief pitcher from the 2008 draft who has already reached the majors in Daniel Schlereth and lefty Phil Coke, who may be tried in a starting role but acquitted himself well in relief on a championship Yankees team in 2009.   They return competent incumbents in Bobby Seay and Fu-Te Ni and they signed lefty Brad Thomas to a major league deal early in the off-season.    While all of this was going on, they removed a significant piece of their offense that was ranked 11th in the AL when they traded Curtis Granderson and have yet to replace him.   Yet in spite of these things, they felt their best option was to spend big on a relief pitcher unlikely to pitch their biggest leverage innings.   That is rather confusing on my end.

The Tigers sign Valverde to a 2-year deal worth $14m.  It is unclear whether the deal is front-loaded, back-loaded, or worth $7m in each season.  There is also a team option for 2012 at $9m.  At this time I’ve seen no reports about there being a buyout figure.   Here’s the skinny on Valverde, who will be 32 in March:

Year
 
 
 

 

GP
 
 
 

 

IP
 
 
 

 

FIP
 
 
 

 

ERA
 
 
 

 

WHIP
 
 
 

 

K/9
 
 
 

 

BB/9
 
 
 

 

WPA
 
 
 

 

2009
 
 
 

 

52
 
 
 

 

54
 
 
 

 

3.50
 
 
 

 

2.33
 
 
 

 

1.13
 
 
 

 

9.3
 
 
 

 

3.5
 
 
 

 

1.62
 
 
 

 

2008
 
 
 

 

74
 
 
 

 

72
 
 
 

 

3.67
 
 
 

 

3.38
 
 
 

 

1.18
 
 
 

 

10.4
 
 
 

 

2.9
 
 
 

 

1.38
 
 
 

 

2007
 
 
 

 

65
 
 
 

 

64 1/3
 
 
 

 

3.58
 
 
 

 

2.66
 
 
 

 

1.12
 
 
 

 

10.9
 
 
 

 

3.6
 
 
 

 

2.20
 
 
 

 

Car.
 
 
 

 

379
 
 
 

 

386
 
 
 

 

3.47
 
 
 

 

3.17
 
 
 

 

1.17
 
 
 

 

11.0
 
 
 

 

3.6
 
 
 

 

10.05
 
 
 

 

Before I get into analysis, I would assume that for virtually all readers GP (Games Played), IP (Innings pitched), and ERA (Earned Run Average) are easier to discern, and that for most WHIP (Walks and hits per inning), K/9 (strikeouts per nine innings), and BB/9 (walks per nine innings) are not too difficult either.  Yet a few of you may not be familiar with FIP or WPA.   If this is the case, I encourage you to seek out the glossary of terms (which I will continually update as necessary) for my best explanation of each.  Hopefully through the glossary you will understand why both numbers are germane to the discussion.

Getting back to Valverde, he strikes guys out at a simply amazing rate, with a K/9 of 11 for his career.   While he hasn’t hit that figure within the last three years and likely isn’t *that* transcendent of a strikeout pitcher any longer, he still punched out more than a batter per inning last season.   He’s been remarkably consistent and barring a severe drop-off in talent or an injury, he ought to be the best relief pitcher to don the Olde English D since Joel Zumaya in 2006.   There is as close to a no-doubt-about-it quality to Valverde’s talent as there can be.  He does it primarily with a fastball that averages 96 MPH and a splitter that he throws at 86.  Very infrequently he mixes in a slider at 85.   He was more reliant on the split-finger pitch last year than he’d been at any other point in his career, and in fact has been throwing it more frequently each year for the past four.   It’s unclear why that would be, since his fastball velocity has also gone up in that time — Meaning that he isn’t throwing it to compensate for a loss of velocity.  He is well above average at getting batters to swing at pitches outside of the strike zone.

The problem I have is less about Valverde specifically, who I believe will be wonderful, and more about the cost of acquiring him as well as my own philosophy about constructing a bullpen.   First, there is a large difference between 2006 Zumaya and 2010 Valverde.   That difference is that ’06 Zumaya was not the closer on that team.    This was an outstanding thing.   While many fans were clamoring for him to be handed the role way back then, I was very vocal in my hope that he *NOT* be the closer, which would severely reduce his positive impact on the team and on games.  Closers come into games typically in the 9th inning (or 10th or 11th in  extra inning games) with nobody out and nobody on base.   Sometimes if a game that was previously a blowout starts to look in peril for the winning team the closer will be summoned, but he likely has something of a cushion to work with in that circumstance.   Closers sometimes have only 1 run leads, but will frequently enter with 2-3 run leads.   And if enough time has passed without a 1-3 run lead presenting itself, they’ll enter the 9th inning of games with even bigger leads than that.   These are infrequently when games are won or lost.   2006 Zumaya was summoned when games were on the line, in those in-between innings when the big pitch was needed.   If we are to take that 2010 Valverde is to be the Tigers closer, then unless Jim Leyland plans to revolutionize the contemporary use and standard for closing (something I find highly unlikely), we ought to assume that Valverde WILL NOT be pitching those high leverage innings.    And if you aren’t going to use him, as the best relief pitcher on the team, in those high leverage innings……….then why are you paying him $7m, which is a very large amount of money to pay a player who has averaged 63 1/3 innings and 262 batters faced over the last 3 years?   Put another way, if the Tigers were going to pay a hitter $7m per year who only got 262 times at bat for the year, even if he was very good in those 262 PAs, wouldn’t you want to absolutely ensure that he was batting with runners on base as much as possible and preferably with the game on the line, as opposed to routinely plopping him into the lineup late in games while ahead with the bases empty with little rhyme or reason?   Most fans would howl to the Moon in such a scenario, but that is what the Tigers have done with Valverde, barring a change in Jim Leyland’s established record of managing the Tigers.

Beyond the $7m, the Tigers also lost their first round draft pick (#19 overall) as compensation to Houston, because Valverde was a type A free agent.   So along with forking over alot of money to a very good but not lights-out-completely-shut-it-down closer, they also lost the 19th pick in the draft.   While the draft is a crapshoot, Dombrowski has done well on his top picks since the Kyle Sleeth debacle, and drafts well enough at the top that I consider it a higher percentage move than it may be for other organizations.  Since 2004, Dombrowski has used the top pick (which has been at varying points in the draft) to either select or acquire with picks selected: Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera, Rick Porcello, and Ryan Perry.   One of those is considered a future closer, and the rest all look better to me than a 65 inning very-good reliever, what about you?   For that reason, I feel losing the pick is no small potatoes.

Finally, the team needs help on offense and has question marks at the back end of their starting rotation.  Given their earlier mentioned situation with relievers, it seemed more prudent if they were going to spend this amount of money to do so on an offensive player.  Preferably a Center Fielder.   Like Mike Cameron perhaps, who Boston signed earlier in the off-season.   While they lacked a proven shutdown arm in the pen (only potential with guys like Perry and Schlereth), they had several passable options that made the situation seem less pressing than what’s going on in the rotation and with the offense.

Put it all together and it seems to be a large price to pay for Valverde, in spite of his considerable talent.  As I stated when the Tigers traded Granderson, this move can be explained away if they can acquire another bat, but for now its a bit of a head-scratcher.

On the positive side, Valverde is a good pitcher.   He’s also a colorful, enthusiastic character who has a distinctive look on the mound.  Good players with distinctive personalities are fun to have on the team, and Valverde should be no different in that regard.  It doesn’t make it a good move, but that is a positive aspect to take out of it.

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Responses

  1. Like I said on Facebook, I think hes a good fit (In terms of a traditional bullpen and closer roles) and a good pitcher, but it just seems like they gave him about 5 million too much considering they had very little competition for him. I can’t understand why teams do that?

    • One of the things that seems to be emblematic of Dombrowski’s time as GM is that it seems if he REALLY wants a player, he’s going to get that player no matter what. It also works the opposite way. He almost never offers arbitration to players even in situations where it makes sense to do so (Edgar Renteria after 2008 and Placido Polanco after 2009). It seems like if he REALLY doesn’t want a player, he’ll take no risk that the player will return.

      He did offer arbitration to Rodney and Lyon, which leads me to believe that he wouldn’t have minded either player returning. I don’t necessarily agree with the way Dombrowski applies his approach, but I suspect forking that amount of money over to Valverde is a manifestation of it.


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