Mets reliever Jose Valverde, once an elite closer for the Detroit Tigers, has had an up and down season thus far in 2014. After a dominant opening day showing in which he struck out three of the four Nationals he faced – the first ending a bases-loaded threat – he found himself installed as the Mets closer. Valverde, 36, has gained a reputation as one of baseball’s most volatile players at one of the most volatile positions, but seemingly put that behind opening his season with a streak of 5.1 scoreless innings, allowing only five baserunners (four hits, one walk) against seven strikeouts.
Apr 20, 2014; New York, NY, USA; New York Mets relief pitcher Jose Valverde (47) reacts after the top of the 14th inning as the New York Mets take on the Atlanta Braves at Citi Field. Mandatory Credit: William Perlman/The Star-Ledger
Then the Mets were up 6-3 in Los Angeles, entering the ninth inning. Valverde gave up a two-out, three-run shot off the bat of Raul Ibanez for his first blown save of the season. Four days later, Valverde would be summoned to pitch the ninth against the Arizona Diamondbacks, up 5-0. His outing would start with back-to-back dingers by Aaron Hill and Paul Goldschmidt, but he’d ultimately hold on for a 5-2 Mets win. Three nights later, Valverde would allow three more runs – all unearned. The inning opened with an error by Valverde himself, and after two quick outs and an intentional walk, he served up another home run – his fourth in a week – to Justin Upton.
At that point, Valverde was removed from the closer’s role in favor of fellow elder-statesman Kyle “Professor” Farnsworth. Since then, Valverde has made four appearances, giving up a single run against four baserunners (three hits, one walk) and four strikeouts. His ERA is back down to 4.38 – not great, but not terrible.
Looking at his season, there’s some evidence that his struggles may have been isolated. He had five strong outings to open the season, the three poor outings, and four strong outings afterward. Every appearance he’s made has been at least an inning, and he still possesses a K/BB ratio of 3.50. His Fielding Independent Pitching sits at 6.36 because the formula heavily weights home runs. FIP, which is typically regarded as a strong indicator of regression, would then suggest that his ERA should still trend upward. However…
Expected Fielding Independent Pitching (xFIP) is a similar formula, but it assumes an average home run to fly ball (HR/FB) ratio. Roughly 10% of fly balls leave the ballpark (the number typically varies between 9 and 11%). If you assume that this rate will normalize over time (generally a safe assumption), a player’s FIP should eventually near the expected value.
Valverde’s xFIP is a very good 3.50. His fastball velocity has remained consistent, averaging 92.2 miles per hour.
Last year, the Mets bullpen featured an aging veteran who got off to a rough start. In his first five appearances last year, LaTroy Hawkins – who received a minor league invitation as a courtesy – allowed ten hits and six runs. Through eight appearances, on April 19th, Jose Valverde had a 5.40 ERA. Through nine appearances on April 21st, Hawkins had a 5.40 ERA.
Hawkins had a 2.67 ERA the rest of the season, throwing 60 innings. Jose Valverde has only thrown four innings, but has a 2.25 ERA (1 ER allowed). There’s a chance it may not work out, Valverde struggles, and eventually gets released a la Brandon Lyon. There’s also a chance he turns it around and becomes a valuable member of the Mets bullpen.
Right now, it’s probably worth taking the time to know for sure.
Editor’s note: Two hours after publication, Jose Valverde pitched a scoreless inning in Miami. He walked one and struck out the next three batters.