Jose Valverde gets the last dance, but glorification of closers over the relievers who get the game to the ninth inning is a mistake, guest columnist Michael Bates says.
Written by Michael Bates, this is the second story as part of our guest column program. Bates is one of SB Nation's designated columnists and a writer at The Platoon Advantage. - Kurt
I don't take a lot of joy in the struggles of baseball players. Like the rest of us, they're human beings, many of them with families, who generally do their best at their job and try not to cause problems. While I might root against them if they're competing with my beloved Twins, I think rejoicing in someone else's failure is pretty damn distasteful.
That said, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't enjoying Jose Valverde's postseason meltdown just a little. I know that makes me a hypocrite, but for years I've been watching Valverde's little celebrations after every out and every save, the little dance he does to mark the passing of another win. Frankly, I'm sick to death of it, and relieved we likely won't get to see it in the World Series.
It's nothing personal. I don't think Valverde is a bad guy, and I don't think what he's doing "disrespects the game," shows up his opponents, or anything like that. I'm not saying, "Please, think of the children!" -- they'll be alright. I'm not John Lithgow in "Footloose," trying to outlaw dancing and fun.
What I'm really against is not so much Valverde or on-field celebration, but what his little shimmy signifies. Consider: Valverde is the only pitcher on the Tigers who gets to dance. Phil Coke doesn't get to dance. Brayan Villareal doesn't get to do cartwheels. Joaquin Benoit doesn't boogie. Yet, those relievers are often used in higher leverage situations than the Tigers' closer. Indeed, if we look at Win Probability Added (WPA), a stat that incorporates leverage and performance, Benoit, Octavio Dotel, and Al Alburquerque all rate higher than Valverde does. Valverde pitches the ninth, and because he pitches it, he gets the glory. Never mind that he was the fourth- or fifth-best reliever on his own team, his was the glamour role.
This is what we've allowed the role of closer to grow into -- a mostly-hollow monster making showbiz gestures. The typical closer is now a glorified short man who can throw hard and rile up a crowd with really loud warm-up music. He gets treated like a Roman gladiator while the set-up guys are the opening act they throw to the lions. It's offensive to me that closers like Valverde get so much more deference and attention than clearly superior relievers even before they gyrate with glee like Papa Grande, emphatically untuck their shirt like Rafael Soriano, get ready for their wrestling move like Brian Wilson, or shoot an imaginary arrow into the air like Fernando Rodney. It's not disrespecting the game, but it sure as hell is disrespecting the teammates who get them to the ninth inning with a lead of three runs or less.
So, I'm sorry, but I'm finding a hell of a lot of poetic justice in Jim Leyland refusing to trust his former "bullpen ace" with a seven-run lead in the bottom of the ninth, while simultaneously pointing out that just about any good reliever can make a good closer and Phil Coke is plenty qualified for the job. It's consistency that makes a closer, not choreography, and right now Coke has that all over Valverde -- and that's without dancing around like a doofus after every strikeout.