There are a few jobs where you can’t be perfect, but you must be perfect.
A high-wire act without a net. No margin for error.
Surgeon, certainly. Air-traffic controller.
In sports, maybe only hockey goalie or football cornerback fit that description as aptly as baseball closer does.
If you fail, EVERYONE knows.
And your head immediately goes on the chopping block.
“He’s always in a situation where he decides the outcome. He’s out there because you’ve got a lead, so if he doesn’t do well and you lose a game, people focus on that more because you’ve lost the game. That’s why it’s such a noticeable position,” said manager Jim Leyland Wednesday afternoon, less than 24 hours after his own closer, Jose Valverde, blew two-thirds of the three-run lead entrusted to him in the ninth inning of Tuesday’s game, throwing a season-high 33 pitches.
A pop-out by Curtis Granderson stranded the tying and go-ahead runs in scoring position. Valverde had already allowed singles to Eric Chavez and Ichiro Suzuki, a walk to Raul Ibanez, and a potentially game-tying double to Russell Martin.
But he didn’t give up the lead — by the barest of margins — earning his 22nd save, no matter how heart-stopping.
Wednesday is a new day, and a new game.
“He’s obviously been one of the best. One of the reasons he’s been the best is because he’s got a real knack for being able to turn the page. Closers that can’t turn the page usually don’t close too long,” Leyland said.
“Release point looked different. No. It just got out of whack. You know you’re not perfect every time. It doesn’t work that way. It’s a tough game. Sometimes you know where it is and you don’t get it there. But he’s fine.”
Problem was, even with occasional bouts of wildness, Valverde WAS perfect last year, going 49-for-49. That spoiled Tigers fans, who’ve always had a love-hate affair with their team’s closers (see: Todd Jones, Mike Henneman, Guillermo Hernandez) over the years.
This year, he’s not been so reliable, blowing four of his 26 save opportunities. His numbers are down (or up) across the board, too — the highest WHIP and ERA since 2006, the lowest strikeout-per-nine inning ratio.
It’s not a matter of changing the way he pitches, though.
“Nothing has changed from this year or from he’s been throwing his entire career,” catcher Alex Avila insisted. “The way he throws when he comes in hasn’t changed at all from his entire carer. Yesterday, he threw four or five splitters. Normally, he’s going to throw a majority fastballs and mix in one or two split-fingers in an at-bat, depending on how long it is or depending on what the hitter shows you. If he’s late on the fastball, there’s no reason to throw him a splitter.”
But when your closer gets himself into jams, it just seems so much worse.
In his 47 appearances, Valverde has allowed the first batter he’s faced to reach 15 times.
As bad as that seems, it’s not that much different than last year when (according to STATS, LLC) only two pitchers in baseball walked the first batter they faced more than Valverde.
The difference is, this year, that proclivity seems to be costing him more.
“Pitchers are going to give up hits. That’s just the way it is,” Avila said. “You’re going to talk about Jose giving up hits because he’s the last three outs of the game That’s just the way it is.”
It’s hardly a syndrome that’s just limited to Valverde.
Last year’s National League Rolaids Relief Man, John Axford, has an MLB-high seven blown saves. So does Oakland’s Ryan Cook.
The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim have an MLB-worst 17 blown saves on the season, and have FOUR on their current road trip alone.
Valverde has four for the season, tying him for 19th-most in MLB.
“What other closer would you rather have? I don’t know if any other closer hasn’t blown three or four saves,” Avila said. “Even (Aroldis) Chapman has blown (four) saves already this year. It’s not like you’re going to find someone that is invincible like he was last year. Obviously, a year like he had last year is a year everyone talks about because it doesn’t come around very often. It’s definitely blown way out of proportion — some of his struggles, that’s for sure.”
Certainly, there’s not anyone on the team that’s a slam-dunk answer to replace him, either.
Set-up man Joaquin Benoit is perhaps the most logical successor, should the Tigers not re-sign Valverde in the offseason. But he has 13 career saves in 11 seasons, and has only had more than two once (six in 2007).
Octavio Dotel has 109 career saves, but has succeeded just once in three save opportunities so far this season.
Brayan Villarreal might be a closer option in the future, but Leyland has maintained all along this season that he has reservations about the durability of the the 25-year-old’s slight build. Given the key step that Villarreal had to make in his progression into a viable big-league reliever was not getting too excited, putting him in the ninth-inning pressure cooker after two partial MLB seasons seems like it may be a tad premature.
Wednesday's ninth inning was case in point. Villarreal got two outs, then gave up a pair of singles, a walk, a balk and an RBI single. Presto, the two-run deficit was a four run deficit.
And that was him pitching without trying to protect a lead.
"He had a tough time tonight. He got out of whack a little bit after they got a hit or so. He kind of quit pitching and started throwing," Leyland said. "That's a good lesson. But he's done a fantastic job. Those things are gonna happen once in a while. He's been absolutely tremendous for us. We just didn't pitch well. The add-on runs killed us, obviously."
Valverde, on the other hand, has the most saves (97) in the American League since the start of the 2010 season, and is best among all MLB pitchers with a 93.3 percent conversion rate in that span.
Asked Tuesday night if he’d thought about going out to get Valverde before he melted down.
“He’s our closer,” Leyland said simply.