Detroit Tigers; Closing Time–Joe Nathan’s Last Shot

Jul 29, 2012; Arlington, TX, USA; Texas Rangers pitcher Joe Nathan (36) throws a pitch during the ninth inning of the game against the Chicago White Sox at Rangers Ballpark. The Rangers beat the White Sox 2-0. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Jul 29, 2012; Arlington, TX, USA; Texas Rangers pitcher Joe Nathan (36) throws a pitch during the ninth inning of the game against the Chicago White Sox at Rangers Ballpark. The Rangers beat the White Sox 2-0. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

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Fine wine, cheddar cheese, and Scotch whisky. These commodities appear on the short list of things that improve with age.

Relief pitchers do not normally make the list.

Therein lies the biggest question facing the Detroit Tigers in 2014. Forget the departure of Prince Fielder, Doug Fister, and Jim Leyland. If closer Joe Nathan, signed by the Tigers in December, abruptly succumbs to the ravages of time in 2014, the Tigers will be in difficult straits.

The encouraging news for Tiger fans is that through November 22, 2013, his 39th birthday, the ageless Nathan has sneered at the face of Father Time. After missing all of 2010 due to Tommy John surgery, he recovered dramatically the past two years to post Nathan-like numbers while pitching for Texas.

In signing him to a two-year, $20 million contract in December, the Tigers are placing a substantial bet that Nathan can continue to get major league hitters out at the rate to which he has become accustomed during his storied career. And that rate has been impressive indeed.

Nathan began his MLB career as a starting pitcher with the San Francisco Giants in 1999 through 2001, a period during which he also underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right shoulder. Failing to distinguish himself as a starter, he was converted to a relief pitcher in 2002. His breakthrough year came in 2003, when he pitched 79 innings, had a record of 12-4, an ERA of 2.96, and a WHIP of 1.06.

Following that year he was dealt to the Minnesota Twins in what turned out to be a shockingly lopsided trade–Nathan, Francisco Liriano, and Boof Bonser for A.J. Pierzynski and cash–and was immediately installed as the the Twins’ closer. From 2004 through 2009 he established himself as one of the premier closers in baseball, posting pristine numbers and making the All Star team four times. His cumulative statistics during his years as a Twin are as follows:

Innings 463

Saves 260

Save Opp’s 288

Save % 90

Strikeouts 561

WHIP 0.96

Avg. Against .182

After signing as a free agent with Texas, he continued his dominance over American League hitters in 2012 and 2013. He was particularly effective last year, as he saved 43 games in 46 opportunities, with an ERA of 1.39 and a minuscule WHIP of 0.90. His advanced statistics were still impressive, but somewhat less glittery, with a BABIP of .224 and a FIP of 2.26.

So there’s no question where Joe Nathan is coming from (a long-term track record of near-perfection as a reliever) or where he’s eventually going (somewhere on a wall in Cooperstown, NY). The only unwritten chapter is how he’ll perform as a Detroit Tiger, at an age when most elite closers not named Rivera are refining their golf game and admiring their stock portfolios.

Nathan throws a fastball (mostly a four-seamer), which in his prime averaged in the mid-90′s but now sits around 92 mph. Although it has always been a plus pitch, it is a concern at this point because his velocity is receding with age and he throws it over 50% of the time. He proved last year he can excel even at 92 mph, but if there is an incremental drop-off from there it could signal trouble.

Nathan’s other primary pitch is a hard slider, which he throws about 86 mph. Again, the velocity of this pitch has dropped a couple ticks since his heyday with the Twins. Nonetheless, perhaps to compensate for the regression of his fastball, Nathan threw sliders about a third of the time in 2013, significantly above his career rate. Another red flag has to be raised with this development, because the slider is notoriously hard on a pitcher’s arm.

Thrown mainly to left hand hitters, Nathan’s 80 mph curve ball normally serves as his only offspeed pitch. He rarely throws a change-up.

The 6’4″, 230 lb. Nathan’s stock-in-trade over the years has been the laser-like command of all pitches, to which his success can be directly attributed. Working all of his pitches just off the corners and effortlessly moving the ball anywhere in the zone at whim, he has rarely allowed hitters to barrel the ball.

He also features a highly composed mound presence, always seeming to be in control, even under duress. Tiger fans understandably know virtually nothing about the “duress” part, because they’ve never witnessed it. Alas, over his career Nathan has been more effective against Detroit than every other AL team except the Kansas City Royals, with a perfect 36 saves in 36 opportunities. Which begs the question–how could KC conceivably have done worse than that?

For his part, Nathan has never appeared in a World Series and stated one of his primary reasons for signing with the Tigers is the opportunity to do so. If he does not get a glimpse of the Fall Classic in his next two years as a Tiger, it’s likely the window will have permanently closed for him.

So we are left with an open question, the answer to which will be evident by the end of October, 2014.

Can an aging elite closer, with two arm surgeries on his resume, continue to pitch at a high level and lead his team to postseason success?

If the answer to that question is yes, then Nathan will have continued to age as gracefully as a fine French Bordeaux and the Tigers might just get to sip from the championship chalice after all.

If the answer is no, well, we’ll have to wait ’til next year.

And if that’s the case, pass the Two Buck Chuck.

Topics: Detroit Tigers, Joe Nathan

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