Valverde Another in Long Line of Infuriating Tigers Closers

I’m sick of hearing about Jose Valverde‘s 49-for-49 save streak last season. We all know how that was constructed: with far too many saves that looked like Saturday afternoon’s harrowing win against the Royals.

A lot has been written about Valverde’s intensity being dialed down a notch – or, apparently, disconnected altogether – when he’s in non-save situations. After the Tigers escaped with an 8-7 victory which should’ve been an 8-4 W, Valverde told reporters, “I wasn’t throwing my fastball for strikes. I don’t know what’s going on.”

[callout title=WHIP Posted by Recent Tigers Closers]
2001: Matt Anderson. 1.32 WHIP, 22 saves

2002: Juan Acevedo. 1.22 WHIP, 28 saves

2004: Ugueth Urbina. 1.29 WHIP, 21 saves

2005: Fernando Rodney. 1.27 WHIP, 9 saves

2009 Rodney. 1.46 WHIP, 37 saves

2010 Valverde. 1.16 WHIP, 26 saves

2011 Valverde. 1.18 WHIP, 49 saves

And in case you were wondering, Todd Jones posted his best WHIP (1.26) in his eight seasons with the Tigers in 2006. And for his part, Valverde amassed his best WHIP (1.16) in 2010, his first in Detroit.[/callout]
Whatever the man’s excuse, it got me thinking again about how the Tigers, unlike other A.L. Central clubs, haven’t had a lights-out closer in the same realm as Joe Nathan and, for a shorter but no less irritating stretch, Bobby Jenks.

Nathan has owned the Tigers since 2004 when he came to the Twins from the Giants. In 59 games against Detroit, Nathan is 2-1 with a 1.48 ERA and 35 saves in 59 appearances; plus, he has 74 strikeouts in 60.2 IP and a 0.907 WHIP. (He’s saved more games against one other club, 37 versus the Royals in just an inning less.) In his A.L. career, including his time with the Rangers this year, his WHIP is 0.952, not to mention a 10.9 strikeouts per nine innings.

Now, on to Jenks. The Tigers mustered a bit more offense against him from 2005-10: 2-1, 2.68 ERA, 22 saves in 39 appearances; 44 strikeouts in 40.1 IP and a 1.091 WHIP. No, he wasn’t automatic, but darn close.

So I decided to look up Tigers closers with the best – or most Nathanesque – WHIP over the past 40 years, trying to find somebody – anybody – who came close to scaring opposing hitters late in the game.

Here’s what I found on Baseball-Reference.com: only two Detroit closers finished with a WHIP under 1.0 since 1972:

  • 1981: Kevin Saucier. 0.959 WHIP – 13 saves, 49 IP, 23 K
  • 1984: Willie Hernandez. 0.941 WHIP – 32 saves, 140.1 IP, 112 K
  • 1985: Hernandez. 0.90 WHIP – 31 saves, 106.2 IP, 76 K

That’s it for the shutdown closers.* Of course, Tigers relievers have posted stellar if not Nathan-
like performances in the past 40 seasons. Here are a few notable examples:

  • 1973: John Hiller. 1.021 WHIP, 38 saves, 125.1 IP, 124 K
  • 1977: Steve Foucault. 1.090 WHIP, 13 saves, 74.1 IP, 58 K
  • 1978: Hiller. 1.072 WHIP, 15 saves, 92.1 IP, 74 K
  • 1988: Mike Henneman. 1.05 WHIP, 22 saves, 91.1 IP, 58 K, 1.05 WHIP

*In the case of Hiller and Foucault, those were the days when closers routinely pitched two or three innings (sometimes more), so it’s clearly not apples-to-apples with today’s one-inning specialists.

All this is to say, outside of Hernandez in 1984 and ’85 and Hiller in 1973, the Tigers have not had an automatic guy in the ninth inning.

I think it’s safe to say we expected Joel Zumaya to be in the Joe Nathan/Mariano Rivera galaxy by this point of his career. Now we’ll have to wait and see if Bruce Rondon is the hammer we’ve been wait for.

In the meantime we’ll have ride the ninth-inning rapids with Valverde and hope that near-disasters like Saturday’s are the exception, not the rule.

Yeah right.

Tigers Prospects Dry Up After Arizona Fall League

Note: This article first appeared on ESPN.com’s SweetSpot blog today.

When the Tigers traded Scott Sizemore to the A’s over Memorial Day Weekend, it brought an abrupt and mildly startling end to his tenure as Detroit’s second baseman of the future. The Tigers, after all, anointed him as the heir apparent to Placido Polanco almost immediately after they lost Game 163 to the Twins in 2009.

Polanco was eligible for arbitration, which coincided with the Tigers’ momentary spending freeze, and soon he was back with the Phillies doing everything fans in Detroit had come accustomed to: steadiness in the field, reliability at the plate.

But back to Sizemore. The Tigers sent him to the Arizona Fall League – “a graduate school” for top prospects, according to the AFL Media Guide – in 2007 and again in ‘09 in what they undoubtedly expected to be a final tuneup before handing over the keys to second base to him for the foreseeable future.

Within days of the 2009 AFL season, Sizemore’s ankle was broken as he attempted to turn a double play and his fall league experience went kaput. It didn’t stop the Tigers from hoping that he could recover in time for spring training.

Fast forward to May 27 when he was dealt to Oakland for David Purcey (himself an AFL graduate) and the book was closed on Sizemore’s career in Detroit: 65 games, a .223 average, .605 OPS and a mere three home runs. Not legendary stuff and certainly nowhere close to Polanco’s track record.

Continue reading “Tigers Prospects Dry Up After Arizona Fall League”

Little Good News for Zumaya

ZumayaFor a long time — even up until this spring training — I thought the Tigers had bought themselves enough time to get Joel Zumaya healthy by drafting Ryan Perry, signing Jose Valverde and then signing Joaquin Benoit.

With today’s news that Zumaya is headed to the 60-day disabled list, with no clear answer on what’s causing the pain in his throwing elbow, I’ve come to grips with the fact his days in Detroit, if not baseball altogether, are reaching the end.

Tigers head trainer Kevin Rand summed up Zumaya’s road back from his most-recent injury:

“On the fracture side, everything is fine, but there’s something causing pain. He’s tender right over the screw (that was inserted during the surgery).

“It’s frustrating for Joel. It’s real tough. He rested it six weeks, picked up a baseball, everything felt great.

“Twenty-four throws in he felt great, on the 25th he felt something — and now he can’t pick up a baseball.”

Plenty has been written about the similarities of Zumaya and Mark Fidrych, pitchers that burst onto the Detroit sports scene three decades apart. (Including a piece on this site from November 2007.)

Of course, the similarities had nothing to do with their pitching and everything to do with their immense talent. Talent that was snuffed out by persistent injuries.

Here’s hoping that Zumaya will return to baseball and ideally with the Tigers. Today, though, I can’t see it happening.

What do you think? Vote in our latest Fungo Flash Poll.

Robert Fick: Ultimate Friend and Teammate

Former Tigers catcher Robert Fick earned his reputation as a bad seed thanks to some poor on-field decisions and in-flight activities.

If you followed the Tigers during his five years (and five uniform numbers) in Detroit, you won’t be surprised by this Fick-related anecdote from former-Tigers flamethrower Matt Anderson:

First Anderson drove from Louisville to Atlanta to say goodbye to the kids. Then he headed west to California to see his friend and former Tigers teammate, Robert Fick, who had possession of the two game gloves — a Mizuno and a Rawlings — that Anderson used during his last stint in pro ball.

After continually badgering Fick to send him the gloves, to no avail, Anderson figured it would be easier to just pass through California on his way to Phoenix and pick them up in person.

“For Robert to muster up what it took to go to the packing store, find my address and all that stuff, I didn’t think that was going to happen,” Anderson said.

I, for one, am hoping that Anderson’s comeback is successful. The fact he’s back on the radar, however temporarily, makes me wonder what an Anderson-Zumaya-Perry bullpen might look like.

As for Fick, well, never mind.

Looking Back on June in the D

Rearview Mirror.jpgOn June 1, the Tigers weren’t exactly reeling but they could not have felt good about the way the month ended.

They lost two games to the Mariners in Seattle, then came home to lose three of four to the A’s. After a 14-10 record in April, they stumbled to 12-14 in May.

How would they fare in June? Much better, despite losses to division opponents on the both ends of the month.

Detroit finished June with a 15-12 record and gained three games in the standings; on June 1 they were 4-1/2 back of the Twins, just 1-1/2 on June 30. In between, the Tigers surged thanks to that soft spot in the interleague schedule — Pittsburgh, Washington and Arizona — allowing them to gain ground on the Twins, who were playing much tougher National League opponents.

The Tigers’ abysmal 5-10 road record in June included losing two of three at Kansas City, Chicago and Minnesota. This has got to stop if the Tigers hope to stay relevant — much less in the hunt.

Continue reading “Looking Back on June in the D”

Twinfuriating

balloonpop.jpgI’m mad at myself more than anyone else.

After the Tigers beat the Twins on Monday night — in a game that the Twins traditionally have won in the past — I thought: maybe this is the turning point. Maybe this is when the Tigers overcome whatever mental block that stands in the way of them a) beating the Twins, and b) beating the Twins in Minnesota.

Even Joel Zumaya’s season-ending injury couldn’t temper my enthusiasm. After all, the Twins lost their closer, Joe Nathan, in spring training and they’ve been in first place virtually all year.

And then — poof — along comes Tuesday…and then Wednesday and, darn it, reality.

I’ve long contended that the Tigers’ true rival in the Central division is the White Sox. After last year, though, I began to think the Twins were gaining ground as the Tigers’ chief nemesis.

(By the by, since 2004, Chicago is 23 games over .500 against the Tigers; the Twins are 10 games over.)

Right now the Tigers can’t solve the Twins. Nor can they do much with the White Sox. With just a game and a half separating these three teams, and the inconvenient truth about the Tigers’ recent history against Chicago and Minnesota, the smart money can’t be on Detroit winning the division.

My thinking might change if the Tigers make a trade that alters the Central’s landscape. If it’s the Twins or White Sox that make a splash, it is, in the words of my podcast co-host, game over for Detroit.