Ben Stiller's 2008 semi-classic "Tropic Thunder" opens with a series of fake movie trailers, including one for an action-film sequel, "Scorcher VI: Global Meltdown." "Here we go again," Stiller says, "again." In bringing back deposed 2012 closer Jose Valverde and reinstalling him in his old role, the Tigers are going the "Here we go again... again" route in the bullpen, having failed to identify a new closer during spring training or become comfortable with a closer by committee. The Tigers have guaranteed Valverde $2 million plus the possibility of making an addition $3 million in incentives to provide Jim Leyland with that security blanket that we call "the proven closer." He made his first appearance on Wednesday night and pitched a perfect ninth for his first save.
One irony of the move is that the Tigers' pen has actually pitched fairly well by objective standards. No American League bullpen is striking out more batters per nine innings, and while there have been some ugly numbers, put up, a good deal of them have been turned in by the now-demoted Brayan Villarreal and the disabled 39-year-old, Octovio Dotel. By themselves, they account for more than half the runs Tigers relievers have allowed. Set those two aside, and the pen has allowed 13 runs in 50.2 innings, or a 2.31 ERA. The Tigers were just fine, they just lacked a big name for the ninth inning.
A team can close a game in any inning, not just the ninth. One of the ironies of the modern closer is that he is often used less often than inferior pitchers because managers tend to save them for situations in which they can record a save rather than use them at the true moment of crisis (this is the key difference between the post-Eckersley "closer" and the "Fireman" of the 1970s and 80s). Last year, Craig Kimbrel pitched fewer innings than teammate Cristhian Martinez, Jim Johnson had less than Luis Ayala, and Joe Nathan had fewer than Robbie Ross. As you no doubt know by now, the saves rule is an arbitrary construct that doesn't describe real emergency situations, and when a pitcher comes in to protect a three-run lead, the game is usually not in any real jeopardy.
A simple way to think about the pointlessness of the saves rule and soft saves in general: last year, the most battered reliever in the game to get any appreciable time on the mound was probably Francisco Cordero, who pitched 39-1/3 innings and allowed opposing hitters a .431 on-base percentage. That is, he was utterly helpless, and yet opposing hitters still made an out nearly 60 percent of the time. Given odds like that, how likely is it that a reliever of even average ability -- and the average reliever allowed an OBP of .317 last year -- is going to allow three runs before he gets three outs? It doesn't happen often.
As a result of the misuse of the closer, a pitcher who doesn't pitch as often as he should is frequently used in games he shouldn't be in. For example, in 2007 Mariano Rivera appeared in 67 games. Baseball-Reference classifies 24 of them, or over a third, as having occurred in low-leverage situations. In Valverde's previous three seasons with the Tigers, he pitched in 206 games, 101 of them high-leverage, 37 medium, and 67 (or about a third) low leverage. Valverde averaged about an inning per appearance for a total of 204.1 innings.
You are free to conclude that in those three seasons, Valverde pitched only 137 innings that really mattered, and that given the same closer has been reunited with the same manager, the same situation will apply this year. Jim Leyland will have the name he wants at the end of games, but will use him in a fashion where other pitchers, the ones that have already had good starts to the season like Al Alburquerque and Joaquin Benoit, will pitch at least as many key innings. In that sense, Valverde's impact will only be as helpful or as hurtful as how many innings get shifted away from whoever is the worst pitcher in the pen at any given moment, and, of course, how well he pitches.
That last seems obvious, but given that a third of Valverde's appearances are going to be spent on situations that almost any semi-qualified major-league pitcher could handle, it's really all that matters. That he recorded a save will get the headlines today, but it's the perfect inning that matters. A team can use one of those in any of the nine innings, not just the last one.
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So, remember: the Tigers added a pitcher who is potentially very good, one who, before last year's struggles, had a 2.74 ERA over give seasons, striking out almost 10 batters per nine innings pitched. That they added an experienced closer, eh, that will relax Leyland, but in most cases the closer is a psychological crutch. Teams will continue to insist that closers are a rare breed of mentally-resilient pitchers, and there is some truth in that, but it is also true that they mint out new ones in high volume --the saves leaderboard undergoes rapid turnover each season as closers rise and fall. Jim Johnson of the Orioles wasn't a closer until he was one. Then he saved 51 games and we found out he was one of the elect. This year it will be Jason Grilli or Jim Henderson or some kid we haven't even heard of yet.
I realize that at this point it's a cliché to invoke Leyland's cigarette habit, but if Valverde's return means he consumes a few less cancer sticks this season, we should raise our glasses and say with literal intent, l'chaim on the occasion of Valverde's first save. Let the saves tot up, let the waters roll and the days drift by: What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. Applaud if you believe in fairies and closers, but reserve your real affections for pitchers. If Valverde is still that, it will all work out in the end regardless of who pitches the ninth.