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.”
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.