First off, let's be clear in separating the actions and the results. Your actions or performance is what drives results, but good actions don't always lead to good results, and vice versa. If this were Game 7 of the World Series, no one would care – you get results, you win the World Series. Conversely, I could make a large bet on a seemingly unlikely event, and win – doesn't make the actions or strategy a good one, just the results.
And in a game on a cold April day with more than 140 games to go, the results are less important than the actions. Winning the game is good, and Jose Valverde having success in his debut after the past six months avoids a media backlash or firestorm, and provides a nice story for at least a day that his return was a success. But going beyond that, let's take a look at the actual performance, and not what happened.
The summary of the outing; Valverde recorded three outs without allowing a hit or a walk. He threw 18 pitches, all fastballs, and 11 of them went for strikes. Valverde got two fly balls to left field (one to the edge of the warning track) from Alex Gordon and Billy Butler, and a firm but routine grounder to second base from Alcides Escobar. Valverde got outs against some of the best hitters the Royals can put out there; the top of their order.
But let's take a closer look at his actual pitches to really break down Jose.
Nothing but consistency here – Valverde threw 18 pitches, all 18 of them registering as four seam fastballs. Valverde does technically employ multiple versions of the fastball; he does throw a two-seamer and a cutter, however, the pitches have so little speed variation compared to the straight four seamer, and the break is only an additional few inches, it can often be hard to differentiate.
Absent from the type was the presence of his split-finger fastball, which will register when he throws it, as it has noticeably more sink and comes in 8-10 MPH slower. Valverde did throw it a few times across his three appearances in Lakeland, but stated that because he had his sinker and cutter working well, and it was cold, he didn't attempt to throw it.
The reality of course is that Valverde hasn't had confidence in the pitch since 2010, when it was arguably one of the best off-speed pitches deployed in the late innings in baseball. And he knew it too – he had a near 50/50 mix between the four seamer (which he dialed up to over 95 at the time) and the splitter. In 2011 and 2012, when he clearly lost the feel and the confidence in the pitch, he used only 20% and 17% of the time, respectively. When he did use it, it wasn't overly effective, with a negative PITCHf/x pitch value in 2011, and even in 2012.
Valid reasons, or excuses, if Valverde had confidence the pitch could get big league hitters out, he would have used it on Wednesday night.
Valverde was consistently sitting at 93-94 in his appearance last night, posting an average fastball velocity at just over 94 MPH, maxing out at 95 MPH. Many fans took this as a sign that Valverde was "back" but the reality is that his velocity, at least in that realm, was there last year, as well.
Last year, Valverde saw his average four seam velocity at 93.3, about a half MPH slower than his appearance last night. It's perfectly in the range of where he was last year, but isn't back throwing the 95MPH plus consistently that he did in 2010.
In addition, at the risk of facts getting in the way of a good story, his velocity was consistent in his final appearances of 2012 too, when he collapsed. His final regular season start against KC, he was at 95. In his blown save vs. the A's, he was at 92.2. In the disastrous inning against the Yankees, he was 93.6. His World Series appearance in game one, he was 93.0 even. Needless to say, while the velocity is strong, it also wasn't the cause for the implosion last fall, either.
Valverde had 11 of his 18 pitches go for strikes, a solid number, though not spectacular given they were all fastballs without anything breaking that would leave the zone. That results in 61% strike rate, in line with his 2012 average of 64%. However, that 64% came with one in every six pitches being a splitter, a pitch that will either get a swing and miss, or go for a ball.
Overall, his pitch chart showed solid control, arguably better than anticipated. He threw more strikes than balls, and his balls weren't wildly outside. On the other hand, he didn't do a great job of working the corners or outsides of the zone. Six of his 18 pitchers were belt high in the center of the plate. Those six resulted in four fouls, and two balls in play, including the warning track flyout to Butler.
This is the sort of command that you will occasionally get away with, but eventually good big league hitters will turn belt high fastballs down the pipe into home runs or hard hit balls scattered around the diamond.
Arguably the biggest issue Valverde had last season was his inability to get swings and misses. After getting swings and misses on over 10% of his pitches throughout his career, in 2012, that number dropped to 7%, and was a big contributor to why he only struck out six batters per nine innings.
In Wednesday's outing, despite 11 strikes, not one of them was a swing and miss. The use of the splitter or lack thereof certainly was related to that, but that's also further proof that a straight 94 MPH fastball won't get many swing and misses, and without that, you're relying on the Tigers defense to be able to make plays for you. And as Rick Porcello can attest from last Saturday's outing, that can be a risky proposition.
Finally, among the balls put in play, none dropped for a hit obviously, but the ball strikes tell a different one story. One routine fly ball to left field will always be a routine fly out. But the grounder to second was hit hard enough that 10-15 feet in either direction results in a solid single. And more noteworthy, as we've historically seen, when the weather warms up, the ball carries out in Comerica. So, a fly out to the warning track on a chilly April night is likely to carry further come June, and turn into a home run.
In 2012, Jose Valverde got by for much of the season, until his postseason collapse killed his market value. His strikeout rate fell to 6, his xFIP rose to over 5, and he blew 13% of his saves, a number he hit only one other time, in 2008 with the Astros.
Thus far, it's impossible to conclude anything after a single appearance with just a few at-bats. But not using the splitter even once and an inability to keep the ball out of the center of the strike zone resulted in hard hit balls that are sooner or later going to drop for hits (or home runs).
People can be optimistic about the results against Kansas City, but it's hard to examine and conclude things at this early state don't look to be on a continued downward trend, picking up where he left off last year. That might be serviceable for a time, but it's unlikely to fulfill the need of a reliable closer for a World Series contender.