|Is there any hope for Jose Valverde? (Getty Images)|
NEW YORK -- Even after a game like Saturday's, in which he allowed a pair of ninth-inning homers, Jose Valverde seemed happy and engaging in the Detroit clubhouse. That's because his team won. They won, however, despite their closer's efforts.
Unfortunately for Valverde and the Tigers, that's not unusual these days. He's coming off a regular season in which he posted an ERA of 3.78 (the average AL relief ERA this season was 3.55), and in the playoffs thus far he's hemorrhaged seven runs in 2 1/3 innings. He's not this bad, of course, but it's legitimate at this point to question whether he can ever again be an adequate major-league closer.
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Even beneath last season's apparent "perfection" were signs of weakness. Valverde's strikeout rate declined for the fifth straight season, and his walk rate continued its steady trend in the wrong direction. Even if the ERA is comely and the save opps are converted, trends like that suggest trouble ahead. As it turned out, trouble was indeed ahead.
This year, the bottom fell out. During the regular season, Valverde struck out a measly 16.3% of the batters he faced, while the average major-league hurler -- starters included -- struck out 19.8% of opposing hitters. Valderde also induced swinging strikes on just 7.1% of his pitches, while the league-mean checked in at 9.1%. Truthfully, he's lucky to have the ERA he did.
So what's happened to the once-great Valverde? At a fundamental level, it's a velocity problem.
Valverde's four-seamer peaked in terms of velo in 2011 at 96.61. This season, it checked in at 94.01. In Game 1 in the Bronx, it was 92.85. The same goes for Valverde's splitter, once upon a time his put-away pitch. At peak? In 2010, 87.07 mph. This season? 84.77. Saturday night? 83.88. In light of those trends, it's not surprising at all that Valverde can't miss bats anymore. And that's especially problematic with such a weak defense behind him.
After Game 1, Valverde insisted there's nothing physically wrong with him, and he's to be taken at his word. It may just be that, at age 34, he's unable to perform at a high level.
To say the least, it's an inconvenient time for the Tigers to be faced with such a reality.