On Tuesday night when Jose Valverde got Curtis Granderson to pop up to first base he recorded his 22nd save of the season. Or it may be more appropriate to say that Granderson saved Valverde on Tuesday. The Detroit closer had already surrendered two runs and the Yankees had runners on second and third when Grandy made the 27th out. You could almost hear a collective “PHEW!” thunder across Comerica Park.
Valverde has now converted six straight save opportunities after having blown four of his first 16 chances in 2012. This after having been a glimmering 49-for-49 last season in that category. But his recent “success” aside (the right-hander has allowed three runs in six innings in those save chances), Valverde seems to be haunted by his perfect performance in ’11.
Increasingly, when Papa Grande enters the game, fans roll their eyes, cover their faces, and pray for the best. The Tiger closer can’t get away with covering his own eyes, but he does it in his own way. Valverde exhibits exaggerated mannerisms on the mound: tugging at the bill of his cap; touching the top of his cap; twisting his upper body; bending his knees repeatedly; tapping the nose piece of his glasses; turning to stare at center field; scooping dirt from the ground. He looks less like a top-notch closer and more like a caricature of one. Valverde’s nervous rituals are like a safety blanket. The only thing missing is a thumb in his mouth.
I think the mannerisms are a result of a lack of self-confidence. Papa Grande knows he isn’t a “perfect” pitcher, that he’s not an elite closer. This isn’t to knock him – he’s a fine major league pitcher – but the job of closing out games takes nerves of steel, good stuff, and some luck. In the past, Valverde has gotten by on a knee-high fastball and some luck. I think he knows the check is due on his good fortune. Somewhere in the back of his psyche, behind the rumba music and dance steps, is his fear that everyone will find out that he’s an average closer with a decent fastball. Each time he takes the mound this year he reverts to those bizarre habits in order to soothe his nerves, but it betrays him. You can see it when he inevitably gets into trouble – his tempo slows and he strolls off the mound, looking around as if to say “Am I good enough?”
Even Valverde’s appearance this season indicates that he’s looking to hide. He’s on beard #5 or #6, he’s had two or three different colors dyed into his hair, and he’s even changed his iconic glasses at least once. This doesn’t seem like a man comfortable in his own skin. Another flaky Detroit star once went through a similar transformation – Dennis Rodman – and that didn’t always turn out that well.
The ironic thing is that his manager, Jim Leyland, has more confidence in Valverde than the pitcher does in himself. For that matter, Papa Grande’s teammates are squarely behind him, they know they’ll need him if they want to advance deep into the playoffs. The question is whether Valverde will still be able to close games by then, or if he’ll be swallowed up by his nervous antics and lack of self-confidence.