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.

Sunday Snacks: RIP Woodie Fryman, A Fantasy Camper Says Goodbye and More!

When I was just starting to collect baseball cards, the first thing I always did upon opening a new pack was to flip the card over to see if the player ever was a member of the Tigers.WoodieFryman

Because my memory latches on to such random things, I clearly remember when I turned over the 1977 Topps Woodie Fryman card and saw that he played for the Tigers from 1972-74.

Fryman passed away on Friday in Lexington, Ky., at the age of 70.

Fryman won 141 games from 1966-83 with the Expos, Pittsburgh Pirates, Philadelphia Phillies, Detroit Tigers, Cincinnati Reds and Chicago Cubs. He pitched primarily in relief late in his career, saving 17 games for Montreal in 1980.

Fryman had four career one-hitters – including a nearly perfect game when he was a Pittsburgh rookie. He gave up a leadoff hit to the New York Mets, the runner was caught stealing and Fryman didn’t allow anyone else on base.

In 1972, Fryman joined the Tigers in the middle of the season and went 10-3 with a 2.06 ERA for them, helping Detroit win the American League East.

He was elected to the Expos Hall of Fame in 1995.

I was too young to see Fryman work his half-season magic. Do any of you remember seeing him pitch for the Tigers?

  • My friend Chuck passed along this story which appeared last week in The Wall Street Journal. The piece focuses on Bill “Pappy” Holcomb, a 71-year-old retired autoworker, who’s ending his 22-season Tigers Fantasy Camp career.The main thread of the story is the aging of Fantasy Camp attendees:

    The Tigers this year had 190 campers, with an average age of 54. In 1985, the average age was 44. Teams that started their camps more recently tend to have a lower average age, around 50, but they also find themselves catering to older, more-infirm players.

    Be sure to view the slideshow that accompanies the article. You’ll see a photo that includes Steve Kemp.

     

  • In our most recent Fungo Flash Poll we asked, If you could choose one, which Tigers killer would you like to see in Detroit?
    1. Grady Sizemore (20 percent, 199 Votes)
    2. Denard Span (17 percent, 171 Votes)
    3. Joe Nathan (16 percent, 162 Votes)
    4. Jim Thome (13 percent, 129 Votes)
    5. Carl Pavano (12 percent, 116 Votes)
    6. Paul Konerko (11 percent, 106 Votes)
    7. Michael Cuddyer (9 percent, 85 Votes)

    Others receiving votes: Joe Crede, Luke Scott and, based on an interesting perspective, Todd Jones.

    I was stunned to see Sizemore earn the most votes and expected to see Konerko or Thome at the top.

    Thanks to the nearly 1,000 voters in this poll. Watch for another poll soon.

     

  • I’m still amazed that the Tigers cut ties with Jeremy Bonderman. As I said on the podcast last week, the Tigers could certainly use someone of Bondo’s caliber for spot starting a la Eddie Bonine or Chad Durbin, et al. Instead it looks like he’s headed to Cleveland and the Plain Dealer‘s Terry Pluto explains why:

    They did offer him a minor-league contract, but he rejected it. The market for Bonderman is slim because of that 6.50 ERA (and 13 HR in 73 innings) after the All-Star break — when his average fastball dropped from 92 mph to 88. The Indians believe fatigue was the reason.

    (snip)

    The Indians are looking at Bonderman because you can never have enough starting pitching.

    Apparently the Tigers think you can.

     

  • This story isn’t Tigers related but it’s fascinating nonetheless. If you’ve followed the Bernie Madoff story even peripherally over the past few years, you know the devastation his Ponzi scheme has inflicted on countless people.This article in The New York Times provides a window into Madoff’s ties to the Mets’ owners — and what role Madoff played in managing the deferred income included in player contracts.

Finally, if you, like me, are a sucker for the Dos Equis commercials featuring The Most Interesting Man in the World, The New Yorker introduces us to the actor who plays him.

Stay thirsty, my friends.

Sunday Snacks: Sparky Leftovers

SaltySnacks.jpgAs much as I want to bash the re-signing of Jhonny Peralta, I’m going to rely on lessons learned from 2005 when the Tigers inexplicably signed Kenny RogersKenny Rogers?! — and Todd JonesTodd Jones?!. Those signings turned out pretty well, all things considered.

Besides, I don’t have the energy to get all riled up; watching that Michigan game wore me out.

  • With the exception of the Detroit papers, most obituaries on Sparky Anderson have been wire copy. The notable exceptions include this one from The New York Times and this one from the closest thing to a hometown paper, The Los Angeles Times.

  • On case you were wondering about how the newspaper in Sparky’s real hometown, his birthplace, Bridgewater, S.D., covered his passing, well, they didn’t as far as I can tell.

  • Here’s one more for you on Sparky, courtesy of Chris Jaffe at Hardball Times.

  • The guys at Stadium Journey keep churning out great reviews of ballparks and arenas around the country. Recently they posted their review of Fifth Third Field in Toledo.

  • We all know that the Cardinals had no business beating the Tigers in the 2006 World Series. Now the rest of the world is reminded of it thanks to this piece by Joe Posnanski on SI.com in which he ranks the 10-weakest World Series winners since 1946. Savor the ’06 Cardinals’ ranking: the second-weakest.

  • Speaking of Mr. Posnanski, he wrote a terrific piece, of course, on Sparky.

Finally, Happy 53rd Birthday to Christopher Knight, who played Peter on “The Brady Bunch.”

Jose Lima Dies at 37

Who knew that when Jose Lima was called up to the Tigers in 1994 he would become a 20-game winner and a big-league character? Lima, whose best seasons in the majors came as a member of the Astros, died this morning at his home in Los Angeles of an apparent heart attack. He was just 37 years old.

The cause of death was ruled a heart attack, according to his wife, Dorca Astacio.

“Jose was complaining while sleeping and I just thought he was having a nightmare,” Astacio told ESPNdeportes.com. “I called the paramedics, but they couldn’t help him.”

Lima signed with the Tigers as an amateur free agent in 1989 and arrived in Detroit during the 1994 season, appearing in just three games. In 1995 he was primarily a starter for the last club Sparky Anderson would manage. Lima posted as 3-9 record with 6.11 ERA. The following year he split time between the rotation and the bullpen finishing at 5-6 with three saves.

On December 10, 1996, Tigers GM Randy Smith sent Lima, Brad Ausmus, Trever Miller, C.J. Nitkowski and Daryle Ward to the Astros for Doug Brocail, Brian Hunter, Todd Jones, Orlando Miller and cash.

Continue reading “Jose Lima Dies at 37”

2009 Player Profile: Fernando Rodney

Fernando Rodney #56

  • Height: 5′ 11″ | Weight: 220
  • 2008 Stats: 0-6, 4.91 ERA, 13 Saves

In a bottom-line business like major league baseball, fans tend to overlook stats such as 49 strikeouts in 40 innings or 13 saves from a late-inning reliever like Fernando Rodney. RodneyHead.jpgSix blown saves and an ERA a whisker under five are more glaring and more representative of Detroit’s bullpen woes in 2008. Yet despite that lackluster campaign, the Tigers expect big things from Rodney in ’09.

Though he spent April and May on the DL, the ’08 season wasn’t all bad for the senior-ranking Tiger in the bullpen; he assembled stretches of lights-out appearances, including June and July in which hitters produced a .183 average against him. Over that same timeframe he fanned 37 in 27.1 innings pitched. The key to success for Rodney is a breathtaking changeup that, when near the plate, is difficult for hitters to resist. Of course, a high-90s fastball makes the off-speed pitches that much more tantalizing.

With Todd Jones’ retirement, Brandon Lyon‘s arrival and Joel Zumaya’s (tentative) return, chances are that Rodney will begin 2009 as a setup man. If something goes wrong with Lyon or Zumaya and if Rodney can harness his pitches, develop consistency, and fortify his mental makeup, he could, in the end, be the Tigers’ answer at closer.

For a pitcher with Rodney’s track record, that’s an awful lot of ifs.

Meet Brandon Lyon

BrandonLyon.jpgWhenever I watched Brandon Lyon pitch for the Diamondbacks the past couple of seasons, my immediate reaction was always he’s a younger Todd Jones.

Fact is, he throws harder than Jones — which can’t hurt — but no one is going to confuse him with Joe Nathan.

Last season wasn’t a pleasant one for the D-backs’ closer, a position he lost to Chad Qualls. Well, that’s not entirely true.

Despite four blown saves in 23 chances in the first half, hitters managed a .243 average against him and his ERA was 2.43. (Compare that to Jones’s 4.95 ERA and .297 opponents’ average in the first half.)

In terms of repertoire, it doesn’t extend far past a fastball and curve. In fact, that’s it. But the curveball is something to behold; no roundhouse breaking pitch, Lyon’s is top-to-bottom — or noon-to-six, as they say. Still, in 2008 he threw the fastball 72 percent of the time — 73 percent with two strikes.

As you might expect, Lyons doesn’t heave bullets across the heart of the plate. Instead, he has a Jones-like corners-nibbling approach. His favorite spots — against righties or lefties — are the outside corners. But against lefties his greatest success comes on the inside corner, up and in, and down and in. So, did the Tigers get themselves another Todd Jones?

Perhaps.

But Lyon is 10 years younger than the Tigers’ erstwhile closer and, in the spirit of optimism, he seems to have the durability and closer-ish stuff the bullpen so desperately needs.

(Oh, and Lyon wore number 38 in Arizona and will need a new one in Detroit…unless Jeremy Bonderman wants to give up his number. I’m guessing he ends up with 36.)

The Top 10 Tigers Stories of 2008: #6 – Joel Zumaya Gets Hurt Again

Number6.jpgThe Tigers were likely ecstatic when Joel Zumaya managed a quicker-than-expected return from shoulder reconstruction. A healthy Zumaya (and Fernando Rodney) was to revitalize a rickety bullpen and fill in the sizable reliability gap late in games. Except they didn’t.

Zumaya was cleared to play in late June and appeared in 21 games (23.1 IP).

It all came crashing down again on August 12 against Toronto at Comerica Park:

The Tigers had a two-run lead with two outs in the seventh inning with the middle of the Blue Jays order coming up. All five batters he faced reached base safely, fueling a four-run rally in a 6-4 Detroit loss and fueling the speculation that something is wrong with Zumaya.

“We’re very suspicious that he’s not right,” Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. “I mean, enough’s enough. It’s not his fault. We’re just getting him checked out for precautionary measures.

“I know he’s not right. I don’t know if he’s hurt, but he’s definitely not right. I know that for a fact.”

A month after the disastrous appearance against the Blue Jays, Zumaya was diagnosed with a stress fracture in his right shoulder.

He finished his truncated season 0-2 with a 3.57 ERA. He allowed 24 hits, 22 walks, 22 strikeouts and 13 runs (nine of them earned). And he blew four of five save opportunities.

When the season started, the Tigers weren’t counting on Zumaya for much of a contribution. But Todd Jones began to show his age and the speedy recovery by Zumaya changed everything.

Or so it seemed.

Remembering the (First?) Todd Jones Trade

Todd Jones is no longer the Tigers’ closer. The statement is as true today as it was on this date in 2001. That’s the day the Tigers sent Jones to the Twins for lefty Mark Redman.

In 2002, his only full season with Detroit, Redman went 8-15, 4.21 in 30 starts. The Tigers traded Redman to the Marlins after that season for Nate Robertson, Gary Knotts and Rob Henkel.

After winning the 2003 World Series with Florida, Redman went on the team-a-year plan:

  • 2004 – Oakland
  • 2005 – Pittsburgh
  • 2006 – Kansas City
  • 2007 – Atlanta/Colorado

He began this year with the Colorado organization and got some time with the big club:

Redman appeared in 10 games with the Rockies this year, nine of them as a starter, and was 2-5 with a 7.54 ERA. He began the season in the Rockies’ rotation before being sent to Triple-A Colorado Springs on May 11.

The Rockies designated him for assignment 10 days ago and his career might very well be over.

Same could be said for Todd Jones.

The 1984 Hernandez/Bergman Trade Revisited

In case you’d forgotten, it was 24 years ago this week that the Tigers swung a deal with the Phillies that changed the 1984 season for the Tigers dramatically — and instantly.WillieHernandez

On March 27, 1984, the Tigers acquired lefty reliever Willie Hernandez and first baseman Dave Bergman from Philadelphia in exchange for OF Glenn Wilson (my favorite Tiger back then) and all-purpose guy John Wockenfuss.

With World Series expectations higher than perhaps ever in Tigers history and the team searching, as it was in 1984, for bullpen reinforcements, let’s look back on a trade for the ages.

Willie

There was no reason to expect the moon from Willie Hernandez as the Tigers’ new closer. After his trade to the Phillies from the Cubs on May 22, 1983, he went 8-4 with a 3.29 ERA and seven saves in 63 appearances, primarily as a setup man for closer Al Holland.

But, as if I need to remind you, in 1984 Hernandez put together the career year to end career years: 9-3, 32 saves, 1.92 ERA, 80 appearances, 140 IP, All Star, American League Cy Young Award winner and Most Valuable Player.

Sparky had lots to say about Willie Hernandez in his book about the ’84 season, Bless You Boys. Here’s some of it:

I’ve been in baseball for 31 years, and there’s no way I can believe what I saw in Willie Hernandez this year.

-snip-

Don’t ask me to explain Willie. How do you explain a miracle? Every time Willie had a chance for a save, Willie got it. Every time we desperately had to have a win, Willie was there. When I read that Hernandez didn’t pitch in 82 of the Tigers regular-season games in 1984, I find it hard to fathom. As a kid it seemed as if he pitched every day. And as Sparky said, when he did pitch, good things usually happened.

Thanks to his miracle season, Hernandez, who wore number 21, cashed-in on a big contract extension with the Tigers and, at age 29, appeared to be the closer for the long term.

In 1985, he turned in a decent year, though spoiled-rotten Tigers fans took to booing Hernandez regularly. He had an astonishing 18 decisions (8-10) even though he compiled stats that current Detroit fans would love to see from Todd Jones: 31 saves, 2.70 ERA.

From 1986 until his final year in Detroit in 1989, Hernandez’s save totals fell from 24 to 8 then bumped up to 10 and 15. Meanwhile his ERA headed north rapidly, topping out at 5.74 in ’89 — when the entire franchise bottomed out.

The Tigers released him on Dec. 20, 1989. He never appeared in another major-league game. All told, Willie Hernandez finished his Tigers career with a 36-31 record, 120 saves and a 3.44 ERA.

Bergie

Dave Bergman DaveBergman was traded twice on March 24, 1984. The first deal sent him from the Giants to the Phillies for Alejandro Sanchez. (Interestingly, almost a year later, the Tigers sent Roger Mason to San Francisco for Sanchez) The Phillies quickly spun-off Bergman to Detroit. Most thought he would replace Wockenfuss as a part-time first baseman and outfielder. In reality, he became a workhorse defensive replacement for newly acquired Darrell Evans at first base.

In 1984, Bergman made a quick impact with his glove and, as the season wore on, with some clutch, late-inning heroics.

In the bottom half of the eighth inning at Comiskey Park on April 7, Sparky put Bergman in at first base as a defensive replacement for Barbaro Garbey. The White Sox’ Jerry Hairston ripped a groundball down the first-base line. Bergman, playing close to the line, slid to his left and snuffed the grounder for the first out of the inning but more importantly, protected Jack Morris‘s no-hitter.

(Nearly a year earlier, Hairston crushed Milt Wilcox‘s bid for a perfect game with two outs in the bottom of the ninth. That’s what we call karma.)

On June 4 in Detroit against the Blue Jays, Bergman had what Sparky called the greatest at bat he’d seen in his life. Let’s allow Captain Hook describe it, again from the pages of Bless You Boys:

Here’s the scene: Two out in the last of the tenth, two men on, and the score tied at 3-3. Reliever Roy Lee Howell (sic) pitched to a full count. Then Bergie took over. Bergie fouled off seven pitches and then picked one practically off the ground and drilled it into the upper deck in right.What a battle! Bergie was up there a full seven minutes. It seemed like a whole season. The house went wild.

Actually, Bergman’s homer came off Roy Lee Jackson, which surprised me because I thought it was Luis Leal.

What made that game so much fun was that it was the season opener for ABC’s Monday Night Baseball, which was much bigger back then than ESPN’s Wednesday or Sunday night games are today. Also, school was almost out for summer and my friends and I were fired up for lots of excursions to Tiger Stadium’s bleachers.

During the 1984 season, Bergman appeared in 120 games, 114 at first base and one each in right and left field. He finished the year with a .273 average, seven home runs and 44 RBI. Defensively, Bergman made just eight errors in 732 chances, a .989 fielding percentage.

Wearing Wockenfuss’s number 14, Bergman became a mainstay with the Tigers. In nine seasons in Detroit he batted .252 with 39 home runs and 219 RBI. He retired after the 1992 season but remained in metro Detroit working in financial services.

Looking at the trade nearly a quarter century later, Detroit undoubtedly benefited the most. The Tigers got six seasons of work from Hernandez and nearly a decade from Bergman. Though the Phillies got barely a season and a half from Wockenfuss (whom we profiled here), Wilson had three respectable seasons in Philadelphia. In 1985, he batted .274 with 14 home runs and 102. The next season, he batted .271, 15 homers and 84 RBI.

Still, chances are only the most-diehard Phillies fan could point out any impression Wilson or Wockenfuss made on those mid-1980s Philadelphia teams. Tigers fans, however, remember vividly the contributions of Willie Hernandez and Dave Bergman.