Jose Valverde is now a member of the Triple-A Toledo Mud Hens, a team he managed to skip when the Tigers rushed him from minor-league contract to major-league closer earlier this year after only three innings in Lakeland. With the Hens, Valverde will attempt to regain his splitter and his mojo. If he does so, there is no doubt in my mind he will return to Detroit's bullpen again soon -- for better or for worse remains to be seen.
Valverde is yet to make his first appearance, but the real news is that he has changed his tune about his split-finger fastball. Fans and some media members had latched on to that pitch earlier this year. Valverde used it to great success earlier in his career, a fine complement to his four-seam fastball that fell off the table, got whiffs or ended up being hammered onto the ground. He'd been using it a bit less over the years, but continued to see results. Last year the pitches began converging. No longer did the splitter fall off the table, and batters were teeing up for fly balls more often.
Fans continued to ask for him to use it more this season, but as he tried it, batters drove it out of the park. If he didn't use it, they expected the four-seamer. A Catch-22. According to PitchF/X data at Brooks Baseball, Valverde threw eight splitters in his last major-league appearance, a game he gave up four runs, including a home run on the splitter. Nearly 10 percent of the time the pitch resulted in a home run. I wouldn't want to use it either if I was him.
He admitted in the Toledo Blade, "My split-finger is not going exactly where I want it to." That, in a nutshell, is why he's in Toledo. (It's also why Valverde had to accept the assignment. I suppose he could have pitched for a different organization's minor league farm, too. But the Tigers offer him the most likely path back to the majors, so he really had no choice.)
Of course, the other big news is that Valverde doesn't expect to remain in Toledo long. He told the Blade, as well as Jeff Seidel of the Free Press, he won't be in Toledo for six weeks or anything remotely that long. Per Seidel:
"Hell no," he said, in a big booming voice. "I'll be here two or three weeks. Something like that."
Hopefully that's more ego speaking than repetition from any lines he's heard from the organization. Can he fix things and prove it in two-three weeks? It seems possible.
Even if he does, what's best for the Tigers and best for the pitcher is to give it even a little while longer after that. Platitudes and false expectations help no one. A pitcher who gets the job done with consistency is in both Valverde's and the Detroit Tigers' best interest. He'd have a crack at a richer contract, and they'd have another reliable arm. Win-win. The flip side is rushing him back could only be a lose-lose proposition.
Bringing him back to Detroit after a few weeks in the minors would be foolish if he doesn't show the splitter is under control. If the Tigers did it again, the entire thing would just be an expensive game of make believe, pretending to give Valverde time to fix his issues without requiring him to actually get it fixed. There'd be no reason to expect better results. All the bus rides, all the steak dinners, all the platitudes about love of the game, none of it would matter if the Tigers didn't make him prove he was ready.
Let's hope they're more careful about it this time around.