This isn’t working. For the second time in three outings, Jose Valverde, the pitcher formerly known as El Papa Grande, stood on the mound in the ninth inning of a game incapable of doing the job that he was assigned to do. This time, Valverde was given a four run lead to protect. All he needed to do was to get three outs before the Cleveland Indians scored four runs against him.
The fact that he was allowed to finish the game is more an indictment of manager Jim Leyland than anything. Valverde gave up a home run, then another, then a bloop single. All the while, Leyland stood and he watched. But he did nothing. When any five year old could see that Leyland needed to pull Valverde before he blew yet another game, he did nothing. None of his pitches were down in the strike zone. Everything was hittable, like he was throwing batting practice.
Leyland’s thinking is pretty obvious, here. More than almost anyone in the game, Leyland is a creature of habit. He has a defined role for each player, and he is more than patient with each player in allowing them to perform the tasks assigned to them. The Tiger manager believes that having an effective Valverde as the closer gives the Tigers the best chance of winning the World title that has eluded them since 1984.
There is no question that the ideal situation would be having the El Papa Grande that we knew and loved return to form. Pulling him from the closer's role would have a ripple effect through the rest of the bullpen. When Leyland finally took notice that things weren't right with Valverde, who did he have warming up in the bullpen? None other than Phil Coke, another accident in waiting because Leyland refuses to acknowledge that Coke is a dumpster fire when facing right handed hitters.
On one extreme end of the spectrum, you have fans who would change players’ roles any time there is the slightest hiccup in their performance. On the other end, there is Leyland, who will be the last one to accept the fact that his plan isn’t working, and he needs to make a change in the roles that he has assigned to his player.
Leyland is who he is, and that isn’t going to change. He will lament the fact that the boos were raining down as Valverde struggled to get outs. But the fans weren’t booing Valverde. They were booing Leyland, and his decision to leave an ineffective pitcher in the game. Again. Leyland was wrong, and the booing fans were absolutely right, this time.
It was just one week ago that Valverde served up not one, but a pair of two run homers in Baltimore, surrendering four runs to blow a game that the Tigers had in the bag. That loss was Leyland’s fault. When every little leaguer could see that Valverde should have been taken out of the game, Leyland stood idly by and let him implode. He can not be trusted with a pitcher like Valverde.
It was worth a try, signing Valverde to a minor league contract to see if he could regain the form that made him the most effective closer in the game over the previous three seasons. It hasn’t worked. Lord knows that he hasn’t been easy to replace, but he is not the answer. The Tigers need to pull the plug on this experiment..
There is a point where even Leyland will remove Valverde as the team’s closer. He will have to. But how many more games will he have to lose before Leyland finally succumbs to reality and puts someone else on the mound in the ninth inning? Dave Dombrowski should not wait to find out. He should admit his mistake of failing to replace Valverde in the off season, and get about the business of replacing him, forthwith.
For some, there might yet be hope for Valverde. After all, he has an ERA of 4.30 and a WHIP of just 0.95 this season. He has saved seven of the nine opportunities that have been given to him. In twelve appearances prior to the Baltimore implosion, he allowed just one run, walking four batters, and never allowing more than one hit in any game.
The trouble is that Valverde has allowed four home runs in just 14.2 innings of work. He has never allowed more than five home runs in an entire season during his time in Detroit, pitching between 63 and 72 innings. He is not walking batters so much as he’s just throwing meatballs up there and he is getting killed.
The Tigers could pull Valverde as the closer and put him in the game in lower leverage situations, when they have more margin for error. Leyland did this last October, when Valverde gave up two runs and four hits while recording just one out in the World Series. It was obvious then, as it’s obvious now, that he should not be pitching in the major leagues. He is just too easy to hit. If Leyland is willing to put Valverde in a World Series game when he clearly doesn’t have it, how can he be trusted with him on the roster now? He can’t be.
Joaquin Benoit, who set the Indians down in order in the eighth inning, has quietly been having a very good season for the Tigers. In 25 appearances, pitching 26 innings, Benoit has allowed just 18 hits, nine walks, and struck out 29 batters. He has seven holds and two saves, without blowing a lead this year. He carries an ERA of 2.08 and a WHIP of 1.04.
Benoit could easily have been left in the game on Friday, but that’s not how Leyland rolls. Benoit is the eighth inning guy, and Valverde is the closer. Leyland will always pull his pitcher, no matter how effective, to put in the closer for the ninth inning. That’s the formula, which is carved in stone. It’s ridiculous, and it will cost the team wins, but that’s how it is with Leyland, as it is with most teams. Most managers, though, would pull their closer out of the game when it's clear that they don't have it on a given night.
Jim Leyland is still one of the best managers in the game. No manager is better at managing people, and that's the hardest part of being a manager. Leyland’s loyalty to his players and to his system pays off with a group of players who know their roles and what is expected of them, and they give their best effort to their manager every time they take the field.
Leyland is also loyal to a fault. That is what we saw last October, it’s what we see whenever Don Kelly’s name is inexplicably written on the lineup card, or Phil Coke is brought in to face a right handed hitter, and it’s what we saw on Friday night. But we're now at the point where the line between loyalty and stupidity is becoming blurred.
As long as Jose Valverde is on the roster, there is a danger that Leyland will trust him to do a job that he shouldn’t be trusted to do. There is only one remedy, and that is to save Jim Leyland from himself, and remove Valverde from the roster.