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Arizona Diamondbacks All-Time Top 50: #23, José Valverde

Papa Grande had a larger-than-life personality, and penchant for cardiac event -inducing ninth inning performances.

F – Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Jose Valverde reacts after striking out Dodgers Nomar Garciaparra Photo by Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
  • Avg ranking (high/low/most common): 24.41 (3/41/29)
  • Seasons: 2003-2007
  • Stats: 5 games, 260 IP, 3.29 ERA, 141 ERA+, 5.6 bWAR

Best season: 2007* – 65 Games, 64.1 IP, 2.66 ERA, 179 ERA+, 2.2 bWAR

47 Saves (1st in MLB), 87% Save %, 10.9 K/9 6th in Cy Young voting

*Best season in Arizona, as opposed to career (2011)

José Valverde was one of the organization’s original members, signing in February of 1997 as an amateur free agent out of the Dominican Republic at the age of 17. Throughout his minor league career, Valverde was an elite strikeout artist. Unfortunately, he was also a master at walking batter. This wild inconsistency slowed his rise through the ranks, and he didn’t appear in a game for Arizona until June of 2003 when the Diamondbacks lost Matt Mantei to the DL (again).

For some in the game, teams and fans must wait a few years to see what sort of player is going to develop. Though fans did not know it then, José Valverde demonstrated exactly the sort of pitcher he would be in his very first MLB appearance. Valverde struck out the very first batter he faced in Gary Matthews, Jr. He followed that up by surrendering a monster shot to Mark Loretta, a man who would only hit 76 home runs in a 15-year career. At that point, it seemed as though the home run might have rattled Valverde, as he then proceeded to load the bases on a walk, a single, and then another walk. But then something clicked. After not being able to find the plate for three batters, Valverde did what he would do many times thereafter. He fed off the emotion and the pressure. Six pitches after loading the bases, Valverde had struck out both Xavier Nady and Lou Merloni, notching his first save and taking his first step on an all-star career.

The rest of 2003 saw Valverde appear in a total of 54 games during which he posted a strikeout rate of over 12. Arizonans were pretty convinced that they had the team’s new closer firmly in-house. It was also that season in which Jim Trabor, then a colour announcer for the Diamondbacks, employed a rough use of Spanglish to give Valverde the nickname “Papa Grande”, owing to Valverde’s impressive size at 6’ 4” and 265 pounds. Though he meant to be calling Valverde “Big Daddy”, the more accurate translation of “Big Potato” was not entirely forgotten. Both “Papa Grande” and “The Big Potato” would follow Valverde the rest of his career.

In 2004, the Diamondbacks entered the season expecting Valverde to be the full-time closer. Unfortunately for Arizona, Valverde was bit by the injury bug and only appeared in 29 games for a team that went on to lose the most games in baseball. In 2005, injuries and wildness both bit Valverde. Things got so bad that Arizona was ultimately forced to send him back to AAA-Tucson to get right again. In 2006, Valverde started off strong, but then his wildness once again led to struggles in May. He eventually lost the job of closer to Jorge Julio and spent the next three months earning his manager’s trust again. In September, he returned to closing games and was once again effective.

In 2007, Valverde took everything he had learned from his ups and downs of the previous two years and he put it all together. 2007 saw Valverde develop into a key component of an unlikely NL West Champion Arizona Diamondbacks. With a strikeout rate of 10.9/9 IP, Valverde’s fame grew with each save, as did his on the field antics. It was during 2007 when Valverde’s post-batter celebrations went from demonstrative to nearly theatrical. It was also in 2007 when fans learned of the many superstitions which followed Valverde everywhere he went. His various antics, in addition to his on-field excellence, made him arguably the most-identifiable star on the team, despite sharing the field with 2006 Cy Young winner and 2007 Cy Young runner-up, Brandon Webb.

The Diamondbacks 2007 NLCS loss to the Colorado Rockies was also José Valverde’s exit from the team. In order to avoid the high cost of keeping a premiere closer around, the Diamondbacks traded Valverde to the Houston Astros in December of the 2007-08 offseason. After leaving Arizona, Valverde would go on to twice more lead all of baseball in saves, once in 2008 (Houston), and again in 2011 (Detroit), making him one of the few players in baseball to ever lead both leagues in saves. He would also lead all of baseball in appearances three times and once finish as high as fifth in Cy Young voting. The appearances and the innings (averaging 68 innings per season for three consecutive years in Detroit) eventually took their toll, as did age and injury.

After a wildly up-and-down 2012, Valverde fell off the proverbial cliff. After being released by the Tigers in 2013, the New York Mets picked up Valverde, hoping he could at least serve as a setup man. This didn’t work out so well. He was cut loose by Mets, later to be picked up by both the Padres (2014) and Nationals (2015) on minor league deals. In 2015, while playing for the Nationals’ AAA-affiliate, José Valverde tested positive for the presence of Stanozolol and was issued an 80-game suspension. The Nationals subsequently released him, ending his career as a player.