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Arizona Diamondbacks on the 2020 Hall of Fame ballot: Jose Valverde

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Potentially, could go into Cooperstown as a D-back... But getting there...

Arizona Diamondbacks v Chicago Cubs

The 2020 Hall of Fame ballot is out, and this year, there are quite a few players with Arizona connections who have been added to the list. There probably isn’t much chance of any of them making it - odds are, most will be “one and done”, but let’s just review their chances, along with their time for the Diamondbacks.

Jose Valverde in Arizona

While originally an outfielder and catcher, he became a pitcher as a teenager. Jose signed with the team in 1999, and made his way through the minor-league system for the next four years, eventually making his debut in June 2003. He was almost immediately thrown into the closer’s role, notching nine saves that month. This was the result of a shoulder issue for established closer Matt Mantei, but Valverde had closing experience in the minors. The problems came after Mantei returned from the DL, and was not immediately given his job back. The veteran called Bob Brenly’s decision “a joke,” but was closing games out shortly after, with Valverde becoming a set-up man.

The strong start and Jose’s physique - he was as heavy as 280 lbs at his peak - had caused color commentator Jim Trabor to tag Valverde as “Big Daddy”. Which was fine, except when Trabor then decided to translate it into Spanish as “Papa Grande.” For “papa” actually means “potato” - for what was intended, “Papi Grande” would have been better. But even if Jose’s nickname was “Large Potato”, it still stuck. [More than Trabor, anyway, who left Arizona after that season and went back to Oklahoma to do talk radio] Valverde didn’t seem to mind, though did say if allowed to choose, his nickname would be Donkey, “because everybody wants to be on the burro all the time. You know why? Because donkeys never go down.”

He came back to replace Mantei again in June 2004 - not that there were many saves to be had for Arizona that season. But Jose had barely got his feet under the table when injury curtailed his campaign with a rotator cuff issue. The following year, it was Brandon Lyon who opened the season as D-backs’ closer, but after he had to hit the DL, and stand-in Brian Bruney then proved a disaster. “Bruney must go,” proclaimed the SnakePit at the end of July. Ask, and ye shall receive, with Valverde taking over early in August. In 2006, Jose began the season for the first time as Diamondbacks’ closer. But that didn’t last, after a horrendous spell of games to end May, where he allowed 14 hits and nine earned runs in 3.2 innings.

Arizona had recently traded for Jorge Julio, and he took Valverde’s job, though Jose did reclaim it late in the season. That set the stage for an epic 2007, where the Jose Valverde experience was in full effect. That year, Arizona had the best record in the National League despite being outscored by 20 runs. Jose saved a league-high 47 games with a 2.65 ERA, but also blew seven - and like the entire D-backs bullpen that season, induced indigestion in many more. The one I remember was August 30, where the D-backs were eight runs up on the Padres at the seventh inning stretch. It ended 8-7: Valverde K’d Adrian Gonzalez and Rob Mackowiak, after allowing a homer to Milton Bradley, bringing the tying run to the plate.

Still, Valverde got the first of three All-Star appearances, coming sixth in Cy Young voting and even 14th for NL MVP. His exuberant celebrations delighted fans, rubbing everyone else the wrong way. But it was his routine: “Valverde takes a chug from a bottle of water when he gets the call in the bullpen to begin warming up. He then sets the bottle down beside him on the bullpen mound. The reliever then takes another chug when he is called into the game, and he spits the water out — first to the left, then to the right — as he exits the pen.” He said, “If I told you right now where that stuff comes from, you’d never understand. I’ve done all that stuff for a long, long, long time. I swear to God. I’ve been the same for almost 20 years.”

The most superstitious player in franchise history finished all three games of the Division Series sweep over the Cubs. But he took the loss in his only appearance in the Championship Series against Colorado, a bases-loaded walk to Wily Taveras in the 11th inning giving the Rockies a 3-2 win in Game 2. That was the last time Valverde would take the mound in an Arizona uniform. On December 14th, he was traded to the Houston Astros for Chris Burke, Juan Gutierrez and Chad Qualls. The first two were both below replacement level here: Qualls had a spell as closer, but an ERA+ of 103 for Arizona tells you more. It was basically a salary dump for the D-backs, selling high the same day they dealt for Dan Haren.

He almost returned to Arizona on a minor-league deal in December 2013. Indeed, Jon Heyman initially reported it as such, but a couple of hours later admitted this was a mistake. It’s a shame, as we were looking forward to him being re-united with Miguel Montero. More on that in a bit...

Hall of Fame chances

From 2007-12, no pitcher in baseball had more saves than Valverde. He closed out 226 games: Jonathan Papelbon (222) is the only other who reached even two hundred over that time. That included a perfect 49 saves for the Astros his first year, and after 25 more to go with a 2.33 in 2008, Valverde hit free agency. He cashed in, signing with the Detroit Tigers on what ended up being a three-year deal which earned Jose just shy of $23 million. He was good value for it, getting two further All-Star nods, averaging 69 appearances and 37 saves a year, with an ERA of 3.00 from 2010-12. Detroit made the playoffs twice, but Valverde sucked there, especially in 2012 when he gave up nine earned runs in 2.2 innings.

He re-signed there, but was released in August. The Mets gave him a look in 2014, but that didn’t last long and they let him go in May, signalling the end of his time in the major-leagues. He spent time in the minors with both San Diego and Washington for a while, but his US career came to an ignominious end in 2015. He was released by the Nationals on July 22, despite a very good 2.39 ERA over 27 games for their AAA affiliate in Syracuse. The reason for that decision arrived in August, when it was announced he had been suspended for 80 games, following a positive drug test for Stanozolol, a synthetic steroid derived from testosterone.

Retirement? Valverde was made of sterner stuff, and continued to pitch in various Latin American leagues thereafter. Indeed, he was still gainfully employed as recently as a few months ago, appearing in forty games (albeit not very good ones, with an ERA of 6.16) at the age of 41 for the Rieleros de Aguascalientes of the Mexican League. [He played there alongside another ex-Diamondback, speedster Tony Campana]. Which the Rieleros cut Valverde loose in July, who’s to say if that might be the end for Papa Grande?

Despite a six-year stint where Jose was one of, if not the best closer in baseball, it’s hard to see him getting enough votes to stay on the Hall of Fame ballot. His 288 career saves are good enough for 32nd spot in baseball history. That’s only a dozen behind Bruce Sutter, who is in Cooperstown. But Sutter was a Cy Young winner, with a trio of top three finishes, and operated in a different era. In 1984, for example, he threw 122.2 innings without a single start, a figure no-one has reached since 1990. But Valverde is the Arizona franchise leader for saves with 98, and given that’s 76 more than Archie Bradley, I don’t foresee him relinquishing that crown at any point in the near future.

Poll

Will Papa Grande get any Hall of Fame votes?

This poll is closed

  • 28%
    Yes
    (24 votes)
  • 71%
    No
    (60 votes)
84 votes total Vote Now

And the Montero thing? When the Tigers beat the D-backs in June 2010, Jose closing it out with his usual swag, catcher Miguel Montero was unimpressed. “He’s a ______ _____. The way he acts, it’s not right, you know? You’ve got to be professional. I’ve always felt that way. And I’ve always told him. That’s the way he is. I guess he thinks it’s right... You can write it down. I hope he reads it.” Valverde did: “He’s a freaking rookie and I can do whatever I want to... If he wants to do something, tell him to come to my locker and let me know. I never liked Montero. He’s a ______ piece of ____.” The two apparently never got on, even as team-mates. “Yeah. because he’s dumb. What do you want me to say? He’s smart? No. He’s just dumb.”