A disturbing thing has happened over the last few weeks. The Detroit Tigers and their heir of mediocrity have been overachieving ad nausea, and suddenly they’re being mistaken for an elite baseball team. But that’s not the disturbing thing I speak of.
No, my friends, that disturbing thing is the discourse surrounding Tigers closer Jose Valverde and his so-called “perfect season”. Valverde is 42 for 42 in save opportunities and people are going bananas. I even heard someone say he should get consideration for the AL MVP.
Now, I don’t need to tell you why saves are an utterly useless statistic made up by a writer who had too much time on his hands and a fundamental misunderstanding of the game; enough words have been spilled on that to fill an ocean.
To sum it up, the save became an official statistic in 1969. It was invented by a baseball writer named Jerome Holtzman in 1960 when he realized how badly stats like ERA and win-loss record were at signifying how good or bad a reliever was. Unfortunately, the stat he invented wasn’t much better. It’s a stat dependent a lot on team performance, opportunity and some drummed-up notion of the “closer mentality”, a position that didn’t even exist before the official use of the stat.
I won’t go any further on this as I feel it’s a waste of time, I’ll just direct you to this article by Jim Caple of ESPN; he sums it up adequately.
With the advent of modern statistics, it becomes much easier to quantify just how much value any particular player brings to a team. The discoveries of Voros McCracken and others early in the last decade have told us that a pitcher’s value is inherently tied up in the things only he can control; in other words, how good would the pitcher be in a neutral park, with a neutral defense and luck factors largely removed from the situation?
And I’ve got news for you kids: Jose Valverde is not having one of the best seasons by a reliever ever. He’s not even close to being the best closer or reliever in baseball this season. In fact, he’s average at best and his 2010 season was better than his 2011 season has been.
Don’t believe me? Let’s have a look.
The above chart shows Valverde’s peripheral and advanced stats for 2010 and 2011. In every major category besides ERA (another inherently flawed stat), Valverde has actually been worse this season than last. His FB% this season has been elevated significantly which would suggest that if he continues in that way, his home run rate will regress. That and all of his ERA estimators would suggest that he’s been very lucky so far in 2011.
How does Valverde stack up against other relievers? Not particularly well, actually. There are 136 ‘qualified’ relievers in baseball heading into today’s action. Here are some charts (yaaay, charts!) that list the top five in many major categories, with some notable additions. Valverde’s rank is listed at the bottom of each category.
As you can see, the names in the top five of these categories are fairly consistent. Craig Kimbrel is an absolute monster while Jonathan Papelbon, David Robertson, Sean Marshall, Mike Adams, and of course, Mariano Rivera are frequenters. Valverde, meanwhile, ranks well into the bottom half of qualified relievers in most categories sitting as low as 112th out of 136 in SIERA and K/BB ratio.
A popular set of stats for relievers is the WPA (win-probability-added) stats like Shutdowns (SD) and Meltdowns (MD) and Valverde does do quite well in them ranking fifth in total shutdowns, while accumulating just five meltdowns. But the thing to remember here is that although those stats are far better than save percentage at judging a reliever’s performance, they are still largely dependent on team performance, luck factors and opportunity. Perhaps a more useful WPA-based stat for relievers is WPA/LI, which is win-probability added per high leverage situation. This paints a more complete picture and wouldn’t you know it, Valverde sits 63rd in baseball among qualified relievers.
Is this all to say that Jose Valverde is a bad reliever? Of course not. He’s not bad. He’s just not great, and is nowhere near the conversation for ‘best reliever of 2011’. Judging by the numbers, Craig Kimbrel looks to be that, even with his five blown saves.