June 19th, 2013

Game 70: When even mop-up innings go wrong for Valverde

Jose Valverde’s track record in non-save situations is well-known, not just this season but his entire Tigers tenure. One expects a little edge to be missing from a high-intensity closer when he doesn’t have a save to wrap up.

Even so, Wednesday wasn’t good. It was a 9-3 deficit when he came in, but it was 13-3 after just 10 Valverde pitches, including a few hanging splitters.

“These are always situations I’ve found over the years that when they’re not really big situations or intense situations, sometimes closers don’t perform very well,” Leyland said. “I don’t think that was all of it. I think it was probably some of it, but certainly not all of it.

“I don’t want to sit here and look like I’m making excuses because I’m not in any way, shape or form. Things have to be a little bit better.”

Excuses or none, Leyland didn’t simply brush off this performance. He hadn’t pitched since Friday’s series opener in Minnesota, so whether he’s still the closer or not, he needed to get some work five days later. Whatever the score, he was going to get the work. They wanted to see better than that.

“It was an opportunity where we felt like he needed to pitch today, no matter what, Leyland said. “So we put him out there, and I think he threw one good split and a bunch of them that weren’t too good. That was obviously not a very good outing for him.

“You give him a little bit of a reprieve because there’s not much adrenaline probably in that situation, but he definitely needed to pitch. It didn’t work out too good for him today.”

In many ways, it was a no-win situation for Valverde, and a tough spot for Leyland to insert him. If he retired the O’s in order, it was a meaningless inning in a rout. If he didn’t, it was going to be another example of his struggles.

What happened was another level of struggles. After back-to-back foul balls from Manny Machado, three consecutive Valverde pitches went for base hits — a splitter grounded to left for a Machado, a 95 mph fastball for a Nick Markakis liner to left, and a 94 mph fastball that Adam Jones pummeled deep into the gap in right-center.

After Valverde missed with back-to-back fastballs, he threw three consecutive splitters to Chris Davis. He missed the first and took the second. He couldn’t miss the third.

“Split right into my barrel,” Davis said.

Davis’ evaluation might have been the most relevant of all.

“The first one he threw me was one of the better ones I’ve seen from him,” Davis said of Valverde’s splitter, “and the one away was good location. The last one was a good pitch. It just caught too much of the plate.”

Pitching coach Jeff Jones continues to work with Valverde on the splitter, trying to close his delivery and raise his arm angle so that his grip actually gets it to split instead of sit there like a hanging changeup. Like Davis, Jones saw the split from a couple pitches. He did not see it from the home-run ball.

It was the sixth home run Valverde has given up this year. He hadn’t given up many in a full season since 2008, when Houston’s homer-friendly Minute Maid Park was his home.

Five of those homers have come off the splitter. He gave up just three last year when he was throwing fastballs almost all the time.

“He does appear to be pushing it just a little bit,” Leyland said. “I can’t really explain it.”

Valverde allowed one more single but retired the side to finish out the game, including a called third strike on a splitter to Travis Ishiakawa. He gave up four runs on five hits.

He had a smattering of boos as he came into the game, and he was showered with them as he walked off. For someone who had one of the ultimate seasons for a closer just two years ago, it wasn’t pretty.

Leyland, who has stood up for Valverde, didn’t completely dismiss it this time.

“You don’t like to see that happen to anybody, particularly a veteran like Jose,” Leyland said. “But we all go through those moments where we have to take our shots. You don’t like it, but you understand it. That’s been going on in this business for a long time, and certainly I’m not campaigning for anybody not to express their feelings however they want to express them.”

When Leyland was on WXYT Wednesday morning, he said he wasn’t ready to cut ties with Valverde yet, that he still deserved an opportunity to show whether he can get his stuff back. When asked if he’s any closer to a decision on Valverde, Leyland didn’t sound like any move was imminent, but didn’t dismiss the notion that he’s being evaluated.

Wednesday’s outing, as rough as it was, nonetheless counts as a game finished, his 18th on the season. His contract incentives kick in at 25, with $500,000 each at the 25th, 30th, 35th, 40th, 45th and 50th game finished.

“First, I don’t make that decision,” Leyland said on an evaluation. “That would be a decision that Dave [Dombrowski] and myself and the coaches would make, but I’m not going to panic after coming into the game at 9-3 or whatever it was. I think we just wait and see. I don’t think that’s something that we need to talk about today.”

It will undoubtedly be talked about within the Tigers offices soon.

Wednesday’s lineups: Tigers vs. Orioles

Chris Tillman is about 10 points tougher against left-handed hitters than right-handed ones, so Jim Leyland took today as a spot to start Bryan Holaday behind the plate. The expectation was that Leyland would do it Thursday with Jose Alvarez pitching or Friday with Jon Lester starting for Boston, but thought the day game after a night game was a better opportunity. He also gave Torii Hunter a day off, inserting Don Kelly in right field. Kelly is 1-for-7 against Tillman, though the hit was a home run.

Cabrera’s history off Tillman, and the fact that no one else on this team has hit this guy, made it an easy pick for Beat the Streak. It actually had been a few days since a Cabrera pick. A hit from him today would get my streak to a season high of … well, five. So it goes. Other picks can be found here.

Gameday | TV: FS Detroit, MLB.TV | Radio: 97.1 FM, AM 1270, Gameday Audio

TIGERS (career numbers off Tillman)

  1. Austin Jackson, CF (1-for-6, 2 K’s)
  2. Andy Dirks, LF
  3. Miguel Cabrera, 3B (3-for-7, HR, walk, 2 K’s)
  4. Prince Fielder, 1B
  5. Victor Martinez, DH (1-for-3)
  6. Jhonny Peralta, SS (1-for-10, HR, 2 K’s)
  7. Don Kelly, RF (1-for-7, HR, walk)
  8. Omar Infante, 2B
  9. Bryan Holaday, C

P: Rick Porcello

ORIOLES (career numbers off Porcello)

  1. Nate McLouth, LF (0-for-6, K)
  2. Manny Machado, 3B (1-for-4, walk)
  3. Nick Markakis, RF (7-for-16, HR, 2 walks, K)
  4. Adam Jones, CF (3-for-15, 6 K’s)
  5. Chris Davis, DH (3-for-9, 2 HR, 3 K’s)
  6. J.J. Hardy, SS (5-for-12, 3 K’s)
  7. Travis Ishikawa, 1B
  8. John Ryan Flaherty, 2B (1-for-2)
  9. Taylor Teagarden, C

P: Chris Tillman

Game 69: Another look at Verlander’s pitching

No, Justin Verlander’s fastball doesn’t look like it’s there yet.

Yes, his command resembles his younger form, even during part of the winning streak he had going.

And yes, 3.72 is a high ERA for him.

But here’s the thing: Even when he works through things, Justin Verlander is still a darn good pitcher.

How good? Well, if you go by Fangraphs’ calculations, he entered Tuesday night with the seventh-highest Wins Above Replacement among Major League pitchers. At 3.0 WAR, he had the same number as Yu Darvish, slightly above Clay Buchholz (2.9), and just barely under teammates Anibal Sanchez and Max Scherzer (3.1).

And if you go by Fielding Independent Pitching, he entered Tuesday tied for fifth in the Majors, trailing Sanchez but better than Scherzer, Darvish, Chris Sale and others.

Call it mediocrity if you want, but Verlander’s mediocrity is another pitcher’s greatness. He looked fairly bad in back-to-back losses in May, and the offensive support he received means he probably cost them those games. But he had two losses in April in which the Tigers were shut out.

“It’s been a battle so far,” Verlander said. “Obviously, you have that stretch of three or four starts where it was pretty frustrating. You know, I guess I’m always trying to get better, and I feel like I’ve made adjustments to get to that point.

“I feel like I’ve been getting better, better, and better. That’s not necessarily going to work towards a perfect game, but you’re not going to get better every time. There’s ups and downs, peaks and valleys, tonight was just one of those nights where two long balls hurt me. You know who knows what happens if I’m able to execute those pitches a little bit better. I’m not saying that I regressed, it’s just one of those games. This is Major League Baseball, you’re not going to be perfect every time.”

His fastball command has been a roller coaster. When he was struggling a month ago he went from a low of barely 50 percent strikes with his fastball up to 60 percent. When he seemed like he was right again, that percentage climbed to 70 percent.

On Tuesday, he threw 24 of his 39 fastballs for strikes, or about 61.5 percent, according to MLB.com Gameday and brooksbaseball.net.

He paid for one bad fastball with Adam Jones’ three-run homer. He paid for it more with four walks, three of them to Nick Markakis. He also paid for it in a pitch count that went from a 15-pitch first inning to a 15-pitch second, then a 30-pitch third.

“The one inning, it almost got up to the point where I looked up and I said, ‘Oh, this is going to be a tough one for the manager,'” Jim Leyland said. “Because he’s possibly got 60 pitches after three innings. As a manager, that’s not a good feeling.”

The mantra for Leyland was fastball command. As many different pitches as Verlander can throw in any count, he still has to command the basic fastball.

“His repertoire is what it is, but normally a successful evening for your pitching starts with commanding your fastball,” Leyland said. “When you don’t have that, that takes away some other stuff, because you’re not getting other stuff behind in the count. There’s really not a sophisticated answer. He just didn’t command the fastball.”

He hit 97-98 mph on his fastball several times, but it was early. He didn’t build with velocity so much as he spiked it, and that’s usually not a good sign with him.

Was he getting squeezed on the strike zone? It looked like it at times, and Verlander had to keep his composure. Still, those aren’t using downfalls for him.

“I felt I threw about 10 to 15 pitches tonight that were pretty doggone close to being perfect, just off,” Verlander said. “I think that goes to show you how fine of a line it is at this level between having a good start and not.”