This was a FanPost a couple days ago that I didn't promote at the time. But I want to make sure no one misses it. -- Kurt
Jose Valverde is probably the single most interesting player on the Tigers roster and he is certainly the most entertaining. Jose is responsible for what I think was most memorable moment of the Tigers season last year; up 5-4 over the Yankees on May 10, 2010 Valverde stepped on the mound in the ninth to strike out Nick Swisher, Mark Texiera, and Alex Rodrigues, back-to back- to back, then he proceeded to dance the night away. We all know how last season ended, but at that point Valverde looked like a superstar, the untouchable closer that we had always craved, the guy who would make us forget about Fernando Rodney, and Todd Jones, the guy Joel Zumaya was supposed to be, our Eleanor.
Before I get into his performance I want to take a step back and cover how Jose Valverde ended up as our closer. Jose originally signed with the Diamondbacks as an amateur free-agent in 1997, he spent 5 years as a significant cog in the Diamondbacks relief corps before being traded to the Astros in 2007. After back to back seasons of 40+ saves Jose got his big raise in 2009 when he made $8 million. The Astros offered Jose arbitration following the 2009 season, but he declined electing instead to test the free agent market. Valverde was probably the best reliever available in the 2009 – 2010 free agent market, but because of salary demands and a lost draft pick attacked to signing him Jose languished as a free agent until late January of 2010 when Mike Illich opened up his checkbook and penned the imposing Venezuela to a 2 year, $14 million dollar contract.
Reaction to the signing was mixed, the stat-based community hated it (as they do with any multi-year relief signing, but a lot of people applauded the investment. I personally got the felling that the Tigers were bidding against themselves, but that is neither here nor there as the majority of the guaranteed portion of Valverde’s contract has come to an end. The important part now is a team option for another year of Valverde’s services at a cost of $9 million. I brought this up in another post and got hammered for it, but I don’t think the Tigers should exercise this option. In this post I don’t want to focus on what Closers are worth per se, we could go around all day on that topic, but how Valverde’s numbers stand up against other relief pitchers.
Valverde has had a solid, but not exceptional career numbers as a closer and continues to be a solid, but not exceptional closer, his career ERA/FIP/xFIP is 3.11/3.54/3.55 (Note: I will continue to use this pitcher slash line of ERA/FIP/xFIP throughout the post). It’s a good line, but doesn’t even compare to truly elite closers like Wagner 2.31/2.73/2.76, Rivera 2.22/2.77/3.01, or even the really good ones Papelbon 2.38/2.73/3.17, K Rod 2.54/2.96/3.24, or Bell 2.43/2.55/3.78. Valverde fits better into the third tier of closers, good, but not great, guys like Jenks 3.53/3.20/3.26, Marmol 3.18/3.71/4.20, Gonzalez 2.94/3.45/3.57, and Dotel 3.75/3.85/3.67. I would put Valverde's career on par with this group, a group that has also generally received contracts in the $5-7 million per year level.
This season Valverde sports a very shiny save percentage of 100%, but I hope at this point we can all agree that doesn’t tell the whole story. If you need an example, remember 2009, Fernando Rodney was 37 for 38 in save opportunities. More context; since 2002 (when fangraphs started keeping track of blown saves) Mariano has never blown less than 1 save and has blown 4 or more in 7 seasons.
So saves don’t tell the whole story, but what does? The best answer to that is nothing. I don’t think there is any number that truly captures all that is Closer. With closers sample size is a major-major issue. In the list of guys above I tried to stick with players who have recorded at least 400 MLB innings, at 50-80 innings per year for a closer that takes a while. As far as advanced metrics go I like FIP, xFIP, and WAR, but I don’t totally trust their assumptions. To take Valverde as an example, over his 489 inning career Valverde has a .266 BABIP against, advanced metrics assume that BABIP will regress to league average, but I for one am not confident that is going to happen at this point. That said by their very nature of removing defense from the equation FIP, xFIP, and WAR are going to be more instructive than ERA or SV will ever be.
So what has Jose done for us lately; In 2010 Valverded 48th in ERA, 73rd in FIP, 61st in xFIP and 77th in WAR among relief pitchers with over 60 innings thrown. Through half of this season his rankings are similarly unimpressive 48th, 93rd, 108th, 83rd in ERA, FIP, xFIP, WAR respectively. To me this looks like a solid, but not exceptional reliever. Even on our own team Valverde has been less that exceptional , in terms of WAR Valverde was our 3rd most valuable reliever last season, behind Coke and Zumaya, and our third most valuable reliever this season behind Al-Al and Benoit. You mights say, ya but the 9th inning is tougher, there is more at stake etc., etc., but I would respond that WAR actually takes into account the leverage index, giving relievers more runs/wins for performing in higher leverage situations.
In my mind the most important analysis of a relief pitcher is in their strikeout and walk rates. This analysis isn’t kind to Jose. Valverdes K/9 from a 2006 high of 12.9 has decreased every season to the now solid, but not exceptional 8.78. Conversely his BB/9 have increased every year since 2008. The 4.5 rate he posted last season was the highest rate since his rookie year, a mark his 5.18 rate for 2011 is on pace to shatter. Among qualified relievers last season Valverde ranked 48th in K/9 and 120th in BB/9 (two spots ahead of the famously wild Fernando Rodney). So far this season Valverde is 46th and 125th in K/9 and BB/9 respectively.
Jose Valverde, is a solid Major League closer, but I don’t see any reason to put him in the upper echelon of very good, or great closers, his numbers just don’t stand out from the pack. Valverde isn’t going to be a premium closer this season, and most certainly won’t be in 2012 at the age of 34. He isn’t going to be worth a premium closer’s salary 2012, and there are a lot of holes that 9 million could go toward fixing. At the end of the day it is hard to get worked up about any one-year contract, but even if we had to sign another arm to solidify the bullpen, there will be a lot of serviceable guys available for a lot less than $9 millilon.