Everybody Loves a Good Streak

The bee bit my bottom, now my bottom's big.
People love streaks. They love (LOVE!) talking about players running hot for a few weeks, getting a few bounces and producing a nice, round counting number. People went bananas over Dan Uggla’s hitting streak, over which he reached base exactly one more time than Troy Tulowitzki and four more times than Yunel Escobar.

Lost in Uggla’s streak – he hit 15 home runs in 33 games. Fifteen! That’s amazing, more than sustaining a non-zero BABIP for days and days. I recently heard two radio guys lamenting Paul Molitor walked twice in the game that ended his 39 game hitting streak in 1987. Um, those still count all the same, right?

There is a certain innocent appeal to hitting streaks and if they get the much sought-after casual fan’s attention, so be it. Anything that elevates Dan Uggla at bats to “must see” status has some value. Consecutive save records, however, I cannot abide.

Jose Valverde is a good closer having a strong season. He’s a great deal of fun to watch (with the whole Papa Grande thing) and seems like an enjoyable enough bro. His Tigers are in first in the AL CentrLOL and his streak of 35 consecutive saves is a team record.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog you can probably have a sense of my feelings on the saves stat (and very likely share a similarly dim view of the stat.) As effective as Valverde is performing this year, he is far from the most valuable or best reliever this season.

Valverde’s numbers are actually among the worst of his career, with fewer strikeouts and more walks compared to nearly every other season. Here in 2011 he is the beneficiary of a strong step-up crew and careful coddling by manager Jim Leyland.

Leyland is quite adept at keeping Valverde in extremely safe situations. Papa Grande has pitched in the 8th inning a grand total of one time in 2011 – on Opening Day in a mop-up role. He has recorded more than three outs exactly zero times this season. Leyland has put him in on back-to-back days 19 times and with one day of rest 14 times.

In terms of leverage, Valverde ranks below the likes of David Robertson and Jon Rauch(!) in average game leverage, though he does perform much better in higher leverage situations. His 35 saves might put him in the top 5 for the season but his 27 shutdowns drop him down to 15th. He may not have blown a save though he does have 4 meltdowns. (Read here for more on shutdowns and meltdowns.)

It isn’t that Valverde isn’t good at his job, it is that his job is so ludicrously easy thanks to the careful management of his bench boss. It works well when you have a guy who can fill this role with aplomb but, as the Chicago White Sox show, smart management trumps establishing a pecking order and sticking to it.

Ozzie Guillen isn’t making too many friends with his revolutionary “use the best guy for the situation” approach but the recent results speak volumes. As South Side Sox reports in the above link, White Sox pitchers in the 9th inning have struck out 12 while giving up just 1 walk and 2 hits in their last 10 innings.

Few of those situations allow for saves, not for the “unlucky” guy pressed into duty to open the inning. But they’re winning. As are the Tigers with Valverde holding the fort.

Eventually Valverde will spoil a save and his streak will end. As so often in sports, the narrative becomes more important than the details. Buzzkills like myself may point it out too often but otherwise masterful seasons like those being turned in by a pitcher like Al Alburquerque (before his scary trip to the DL).

The closer gets the glory but without the setup men, there is no save. Managers are increasingly using their best reliever in 7th and 8th innings rather than holding back the Big Man for the 9th. At least Valverde is doing his work for a potentially playoff-bound team. Hopefully that remains the story, rather than Papa Grande and Jim Leyland’s pursuit of an empty record.