Valverde: Part showman, part shutdown
Tigers' closer merges two personalities into one imposing force
DETROIT -- Jose Valverde has a personality larger than life. He also has a life larger than one personality.
Sometime in Valverde's rookie season, at the turn of a nickname from Diamondbacks broadcaster Mark Grace, he became Papa Grande. Once somebody interpreted Papa as the Spanish word for "potato" later, he was nicknamed Big Potato. He answers to each, and fans call him by all those names, plus Valverde, plus Jose.
Big Potato doesn't take himself too seriously. And yet Jose Valverde takes his job very seriously.
"I think he's got his own way to do things," fellow Tigers reliever and close friend Joaquin Benoit said. "I think he comes in and, as soon as he puts his game face on, he's all business."
Valverde is essentially two kinds of personalities.
"He's definitely a great pitcher," catcher Alex Avila said, "and a very good showman."
The showman is a creature of habit, and Valverde has a laundry list of them before he throws a pitch:
Play catch in the sixth inning, three innings before he has any chance of entering, then warm up in the eighth.
Grab a bottle of water when he gets the call, take one big chug, pause, then chug again until his mouth is full.
Walk through the bullpen entrance, spit water to his left, right, then straight ahead. Take a hop-skip, with his cap in his right hand, then slap his cap off his right knee on the skip, then jog out to the mound. Take another hop-skip, slap the cap off the same knee, between shortstop and third base.
Pick up the baseball, exchange it for a new one from the home-plate umpire, grab some dirt off the front of the mound, stand on the back of the mound, back turned to home plate, bow head, punch glove, turn around, then warm up.
Walk off the mound to the first-base side, do three deep knee bends, another slap of the cap, get back on the mound, and pitch.
And get a new ball, every play.
Valverde has not deviated from this as a pro, he insists. Call it superstition, routine, whatever.
"I think everybody's superstitious," Valverde said. "I think it's not only me. I think it's everybody. Do I have more? Maybe, I don't know. But it's everybody."
Some call it part of the show. Some call it part of the person.
"I'll see him say, 'Thank you for a safe flight,'" said fellow Tigers reliever Phil Coke, making a sign of the cross and pointing to the sky as he explains it.
The pre-pitch rituals are ingrained. The celebrations, Valverde says, are improvised.
For a while, he would dance off the mound. For most of the summer, he would cross his arms. Lately, he hasn't had anything. He said before the All-Star Game that he had rehearsed a celebration, but he never got to use it.
"I don't know what I do [after the game]," Valverde said Wednesday. "You guys can tell me what I do, but I don't know. Somebody told me, 'You do something different.' I told him, 'I have no idea what I'm doing. I swear to God.'"
|"I don't know what I do [after the game]. You guys can tell me what I do, but I don't know. Somebody told me, 'You do something different.' I told him, 'I have no idea what I'm doing. I swear to God.'"|
|-- Jose Valverde, on postgame celebrations|
Other closers have more dominant statistics. Nobody has been better at the bottom line than Valverde, 35-for-35 in save chances. Nobody else in baseball has 20 saves without blowing multiple opportunities.
"It's amazing," Justin Verlander said. "You look at his body of work, and they're usually not easy saves. A lot of them are one-run games."
Until Tuesday, Detroit had an 8-4 stretch where every win was a one-run decision. Valverde had a save in all of them.
"He's closed down so many tight games for me," said Verlander, who has not lost a lead he handed to the bullpen this year.
The antics can be debated ad nauseam. The results cannot.
"I'm sure it rubs a lot of hitters the wrong way," White Sox closer Sergio Santos said, "but it is what it is. If you don't like it, then you have to go out there and score some runs off him."
Said Twins manager Ron Gardenhire: "All that stuff he does isn't fake. It's real. That's his makeup. I know people get irritated sometimes, but I just look at it like it's him. He's a closer. He's got a job to do. He comes in and gets into that mental set of being a closer and does his thing. He finishes it off."
Those who take offense usually haven't met Valverde. Those who have seem to get the ties between the show and the player.
"When you go talk to Valverde, he's truly a nice guy. He'll sit there and talk to you," Royals outfielder Jeff Francoeur said. "His antics on the mound -- it is what it is. The way I look at it, the way he's pitching this year, the guy can pretty much do whatever he wants. But he never shows you up. You see guys strike people out and they'll do something in front of you, but you never see him show a guy up. You don't see him fist-pump or anything. So I have no problem with him."
Papa Grande, or Big Potato, arguably is the showman, the loose personality, making the last out of a Tigers win a must-see moment and making the game fun. Valverde is the guy watching outs later, hanging out in the video room some days, looking for tendencies and mechanics.
He is simultaneously a highlight hound and a video freak.
"I have to watch my video everywhere," Valverde said, showing his iPad. "I have my video here. I watch myself and I watch the hitters, too. I watch my mechanics, everything."
The showman is a mountain of a man, listed at 6-foot-4 and 255 pounds, armed with big glasses and a mid-90s fastball. The closer is the student who watched how hitters approached him last year in his first season in the American League, spent Spring Training throwing almost all sinkers, then essentially changed his game around it.
Valverde is throwing more fastballs than he has in five years, averaging less than a strikeout an inning for the first time in his career, yet allowing just a .148 batting average and .221 slugging percentage in save situations.
"Last year, he had a show-me fastball and threw splitties," Coke said. "This year, he's got a show-me splitty and throws [two-seam] fastballs."
Big Potato gives the air of confidence from his rituals. Valverde gives the air of calm from everything he does leading up to that.
"He knows what he's doing," manager Jim Leyland said. "He knows what he wants to do with the hitter. He doesn't get caught up in it. He knows exactly how he wants to pitch guys. And, knock on wood, he does a pretty good job at staying out of the middle of the plate."
Big Potato helps keep the Tigers' clubhouse loose. He's part of the reason the Tigers have three kids backpacks for young relievers to carry out to the bullpen. He's the bellowing voice in the background yelling during teammates' postgame interviews. He's the guy whom Avila could be heard on TV yelling, "Shut up" to across the clubhouse, half-jokingly, after a game in Toronto in May.
"He did it to me the day before," Avila recalled. "I had to give it back."
Valverde is the guy in the corner of the clubhouse, quietly telling reporters after a game how good this team is. He's the guy who holds court with young Latino players in Spring Training and talks with young relievers during the season.
He told reporters at the All-Star Game that he believes the Tigers are the best team in the American League. He still feels that way.
"I think everybody here has a lot of responsibilities right now," Valverde said. "It's not only me. It's everybody. I know I'm the guy at the end of the game if it's 1-0, 2-1, but it's not only me. There's other players behind me. I have my second baseman, my first baseman, my shortstop, third, all these guys. Get a ground ball, everybody's working together."
The previous Tigers record holder for consecutive saves, Guillermo Hernandez, did it in 1984, the year the Tigers last won the World Series. He won not only AL Cy Young Award honors, but also the AL MVP Award. Valverde won't get either, but doesn't care.
"I'm not looking at what I do this year," Valverde continued. "What I look at all the time is how my team's doing. I have to figure out how to win the game, enjoy the game. My numbers stay over there. If we go to the World Series, we'll remember this for a very long time."
Even so, Valverde has a better chance at being remembered as the showman than the pitcher. But as vastly different as the two personalities seem, they're the same guy.
He is seriously effective and seriously entertaining.
"I'm the same guy everywhere," Valverde said. "But the thing is, every time I go to the mound, I have to do my job. This is why the Tigers pay me. This is the job I want to do. It's fun playing baseball, but this is a job that I have to do seriously all the time when I'm on the mound."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason. MLB.com reporters Scott Merkin, Rhett Bollinger and Dick Kaegel contributed to this report. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.