Jose Valverde's splits and his splitter reveal big issues

Jesse Johnson-US PRESSWIRE

Jose Valverde has been a two pitch closer since coming to Detroit in 2010. His split fastball has been his strikeout pitch, but now it's a home run pitch that needs to be avoided.

You don't have to search Jose Valverde's split stats very long to find out what has been causing him trouble this season. I don't mean the obvious bottom line numbers that show Valverde with 9 saves in 12 chances, an ERA of 4.15, a WHIP of 1.04, and an FIP of 5.89.

If you're a bottom line sort of baseball fan, you may be perfectly happy with the fact that Valverde's save percentage is right below where it has been during his previous seasons in Detroit, other than his perfect season in 2011. After all, the bottom line for a closer is to get the saves, right? In fact, there are a lot of areas where Valverde is performing at 75% (9 of 12), just below the level that he performed in 2012, when he saved 35 of 40 chances for an 88% save rate.

The Good:

- Valverde's strikeout rate is actually higher than it was in 2012

- Valverde's BB rate is lower than it was in 2012

- HIs K/ BB rate is the best it's been in any season since coming to Detroit

- Valverde is allowing a lower percentage of batters to get hits than in 2012

- The batting average and on base percentage against him are down from 2012

- Valverde's ground ball to fly ball rate is up from 2012

- The percentage of extra base hits is down from 2012

- Valverde's WHIP is way down from 2012, and would be the lowest of his career

- Valverde's ERA for the season entering Wednesday's game was 3.78, exactly what it was last season

The Issue

So if strikeouts are up, walks are down, hits are down, and the ERA is about the same, then what's the problem? Well, there is one area that jumps out as a problem. Valverde's home run rate is higher, much higher than it has been at any time in his career. This is particularly troubling because the gopher ball was his issue in the playoffs last season, when he was yanked as the team's closer. Home run rate is up, slugging percentage is up as a result, and that can almost entirely explain the jump in Valverde's FIP.

Valverde allowed just three home runs during the regular season in 2012, and just five in each of the two seasons prior, but has already allowed four home runs this season. Home runs are responsible for both of his blown saves this year, and were responsible for his blown saves in the playoffs last year. So why the increase in home run rate?

Repertoire


Jose Valverde came to the Tigers as one of the most consistent closers in the game. But in 2009, the season prior to his arrival in Detroit, pitch/fx shows that he didn’t throw a split fastball at all. He brought a four pitch repertoire that included a four seam fastball, a two seamer, a slider and a curve ball.

Since coming to the Tigers, he has been a two pitch closer, featuring his fastball and a split fastball. He had used the splitter prior to the 2009 season, but never more than 18% of the time. In 2010, over half the pitches thrown were identified by Pitch/fx as splitters. In 2011 and 2012, he was back to an 80/ 20 fastball/ splitter mix.

In terms of pitch identification, we must always use the disclaimer that pitches are easily mis-identified, but with Valverde, the data looks pretty straight forward, at least for his first two seasons. A few pitches in 2012, and a couple so far this season have been identified as two seamers, but that could be an ID error. Those pitches don’t significantly impact the percentages in any case.

The importance of the splitter to Valverde can not be over stated. For a pitcher with just two pitches, if the off speed pitch is ineffective, hitters will be sitting dead red on the fastball. More to the point, the splitter has been Valverde’s strike out pitch. In all three seasons in Detroit, his K rate with the splitter was greater than with his fastball. So, when the hitter has two strikes on him, no longer is there an 80/ 20 chance of seeing a fastball. Valverde regularly went to the splitter with two strikes, and that kept the hitter off balance.

The following chart shows the number and percentage of four seam fastballs (FB) and split fastballs (FS), as well as the percentage of strikes and the home run to fly ball ratio for each pitch type during Valverde's time in Detroit.


FB FB% FB Str% FB HR/FB FS FS%
FS Str% FS HR/FB
2010 489 47.6 63.0 7.1 539 52.4 60.2 12.5
2011 946 79.2 64.0 5.8 247 20.7 57.4 7.7
2012 891 80.7 65.2 3.7 212 19.2 62.0 2.0
2013 251 86 64.2 7.7 44 14 72.7 44.4%


In 2013, Valverde’s split fastball percentage is down to 14%. Even still, 39% of his splitters have been strikeout pitches, compared to just 18% on his fastballs. He also has not walked a batter on a splitter. He has not typically thrown them in three ball counts. Insert the small sample disclaimer here, but we’re just looking for trends, given the October surprise that Valverder gave us last year.

Both the velocity and the vertical movement have decreased on Valverde’s splitters. Velocity was 84.5 MPH in 2012, and is 83.3 MPH this season. (Gameday shows him at 85 on Tuesday). The velocity has also dropped some on his fastball, But for the most part, Valverde's four seam fastball is performing consistently as well as it did in 2012.

Splitsville

Next, let’s look at what happens when Valverde throws his splitter. In his previous three seasons, Valverde’s splitter has yielded an annually increasing fly ball percentage, from 20 to 29, to 36 % fly balls. But the home run rate on those flies has been low. Just over 7% in 2010 and 2011, and not a single home run on a splitter during the regular season in 2012.

In 2013, that story has been different when it comes to the split fastball. Valverde’s splitter has yielded just 10% ground balls, and 80% fly balls. 44.4% of those flies have gone for home runs. The home run rate is critical for Valverde, moreso than anything else. He can get by with walks and even hits as long as he keeps the ball in the park. It is home runs that did him in last October, and home runs that have given him trouble, when he’s been in trouble this season. Just 7.7% of the fly balls hit off his fastballs, or a little more than in previous seasons have left the yard this year. It’s that splitter that has done him in.

Contact rate

Plate discipline data can be dissected nine ways from Sunday, but what stands out to me in this chart is this: Batters have swung at 80% of the splitters in the strike zone, and have made contact on 100% of them. Well, actually, the called third strike against Billy Butler on Tuesday night was the first called strike that Valverde has gotten on a splitter. It wasn't in the strike zone. On splitters thrown outside the strike zone, batters are swinging over a third of the time, and usually not making contact. All this translates to a whiff rate of zero on splitters that Valverde has thrown inside the strike zone.

As an example, think of the two splitters that Valverde threw on Saturday night to finish off Ryan Raburn and Mike Aviles. They were well outside the strike zone, but he got both hitters to go around on check swings, and both were rung up for strike three. That's vintage Valverde: two strike pitch- splitter outside the strike zone- got the K’s. Contrast that with the one that he threw to Brantly that wound up in the seats the night before, causing panic in Detroit. Just examples, but I think typical of what we’re seeing this year and late last year.


Finally, let’s check out how hitters fare against Valverde’s fastball and his splitter. While hitters posted a wOBA of .306, .264, and .301 off Valverde’s fastball the past three seasons, their wOBA against his splitter has been just .220, .260, .221. In 2013, opponents have a wOBA of .234 off the fastball, but .435 off the splitter, and opponents were hitting .235 .278 .765 1.042 against Valverde's splitter entering Wednesday's game. That’s like turning the average hitter into Miguel Cabrera whenever he throws the splitter.

Valverde is actually throwing a higher percentage of his splitters in the strike zone this season, but so far that is not a good thing. Of the five home runs that Valverde has surrendered this season, four have come on split fastballs.

One thing that we can not chalk up Valverde’s troubles to is lady luck. He has allowed a BABIP of just .143 on the splitter and .200 on the heater this season through Tuesday's action, compared with .245 and .251 BABIP numbers in his career. So it’s not like balls are just dropping in on him in disproportionate numbers.

Once again, we only have a small sample of Valverde's splitters this season, and when you’re dissecting that number even farther, we’re talking about just a few pitches, but when he throws them in the strike zone, they always seem to get hit, and they’ve caused him and the Tigers a lot of grief.

Post season problems

One last set of splits is worth noting, and that is Valverde's splits in the post season. Again, we're dealing with small samples, but important samples. Valverde has pitched in five playoff series with the Tigers. In 2011, he pitched in the ALDS against New York, and the ALCS against Texas. In 2012, he pitched against Oakland, New York, and San Francisco. That's a total of five playoff series, ten games, and 55 batters faced with Detroit.

In those five series, Valverde has posted ERAs of 6.00, 8.31, 16.20, 54.00, and 54.00. His WHIP in those five series, respectively has been 2.00, 1.62, 2.40, 6.40, and 12.00. Each series is a very small sample, but there's trouble in every one of them.

During the post season with Detroit, Valverde has struck out 10.8 batters per nine innings, but walked 11, gave up 15 runs, and 18 hits including 4 home runs in 10 innings. Valverde allowed just three home runs all last year during the season, and five in each of the two previous seasons, but he has allowed five home runs already this season.

While the 44 splitters so far this season are a small sample, note that he threw just eleven splitters in the post season last October. He struck out one, and gave up two singles, one double, and one home run. He threw 60 fastballs in the playoffs, giving up another home run and six more hits. That was enough for even Jim Leyland to pull him from his role as the closer. Obviously, the stakes were higher last October than they are at present.

The Bottom Line

So, if you're a bottom line kind of fan, and you're happy enough as long as Valverde is racking up the saves, that's great. But you can't be happy with the bottom line in the post season, and the cause of his post season troubles are present so far this season.

Valverde's splits, and his splitter, are something to monitor as the season progresses. He will need to be able to throw the splitter for strikes more effectively, meaning down in the strike zone, or not throw it in the strike zone at all. Regardless of whether he rights the ship enough to remain the Tigers' closer for the regular season, he'll need to do better in the playoffs than he has done in any playoff series during his career with the Tigers.

Editor's Note: This article was written on Tuesday night. I've updated most of the stats through Wednesday's action, except where indicated. Having written this, I watched with the gang on BYB as El Papa threw 13 consecutive four seam fastballs, and was almost in the clear with two outs and two strikes, when he threw a splitter up in the strike zone. A split fastball in that location is a disaster every time.The worst pitch you can throw is a splitter that doesn't split, or a sinker that doesn't sink.

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