Apr 2, 2014; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Tigers relief pitcher Joe Nathan (36) wipes his eye against the Kansas City Royals at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Say It Ain't So, Joe--Detroit Tiger Nathan Stumbles


Detroit Tiger closer Joe Nathan, expected to anchor this year’s bullpen, has attributed his early season struggles to a “dead arm”.

At the rate he’s blowing saves for his new team, the Tigers may experience a lethal problem of their own.

They may soon be “dead in the water”.

Despite Nathan’s struggles, to date the team has avoided abject disaster. After blowing a three-run lead Wednesday in the ninth in a key early series against NL power Los Angeles, Nathan was bailed out by Victor Martinez‘s tenth inning, game winning home-run.

But this was the hollowest of victories.

What should have been a satisfying, regulation-length road win against a quality opponent turned into yet another Nathan meltdown.

The 39 year-old closer was signed in the offseason to a two-year, $20 million contract. Though he has had two arm surgeries in his career (the most recent of which caused him to miss the entire 2010 season), Nathan has pitched superbly as a reliever since his conversion from a starter with San Francisco in 2003.

With 342 career saves in 382 opportunities, Nathan has arguably established Hall of Fame credentials, and his signing with Detroit was universally applauded.

Unfortunately, the game is fickle and has as little respect for its elder statesmen as it has for public opinion. Nathan’s current struggles are reflected in his lofty 12.27 ERA, unsightly 2.73 WHIP, and two blown saves in three attempts.

Furthermore, in his only save of the year, he gave up hits to two of the four batters he faced.

With set-up man and closer-in-waiting Bruce Rondon out for the year with Tommy John surgery, a question mark at closer out of the starting blocks is the last thing the Tigers needed. It is nonetheless exactly what the team faces as it heads to San Diego this weekend to complete its two city inter-league western swing.

So what to do?

There are three general scenarios that could play out as the season unfolds.

Let’s take a look at each.

Scenario #1 (Nathan’s early ineffectiveness is an anomaly)

Do nothing.

This is something baseball people are exceedingly good at. Though that sounds like a condemnation, it’s not.

To dredge up an old saying, baseball is a marathon, not a sprint. Anyone who has ever played the game at any level has failed. Publicly.

The same truth applies to the game’s stars. At this time last year, for instance, designated hitter Victor Martinez was struggling to regain his form after missing all of 2012. He had a bad first half and weighed down the batting order with his out-making and lack of speed. By mid–season he was raking, and had a torrid second half. It just took a while.

Joe Nathan has a track record. He knows how to get major-league hitters out. He’s done it before and he’ll do it again. For the moment his velocity is down, which is forcing him to nibble at the corners a little more than he would like. But his usual arsenal will coalesce soon and the Tigers will have the shutdown closer they envisioned when they signed Nathan last November.

Thankfully for Tiger fans, this is the most likely scenario.

Scenario # 2 (Nathan is experiencing an inevitable age-related drop-off in performance)

Like all athletes, Joe Nathan’s body is not immune to the ravages of time. That’s the apparent reason, despite saving 43 of 46 games for them last year, the Texas Rangers did not re-sign him.

Should this scenario hold, it will be painful for Tiger fans.

Nathan’s velocity on his fastball has decreased from the mid–90s in his heyday, to 92–93 mph last year, to 88–91 this year.

Though he has other effective pitches, they all depend on his ability to reliably locate a low–90s fastball. Despite the fact he (encouragingly!) touched 93 mph in Wednesday night’s disastrous ninth-inning, he has been sitting around 90 mph, which translates to a significantly reduced margin of error.

The reduced velocity has been on full display into early April and is no doubt a concern for all involved.

It’s simple–if the velocity drop-off is permanent, we no longer have a shutdown closer.

What remains will be a savvy, competitive reliever capable of getting important outs. He will continue to be trotted out in most save situations, but will not approach his career save percentage of 90%.

With Nathan’s performance to date, this prospect falls well within the realm of possibility.

Scenario # 3 (Nathan is done)

Washed–up. Done for. Road kill. Has been.

Though painful to dwell upon for Tiger fans, it’s possible Nathan has entirely lost it and will not get it back.

Ouch!

If this improbable scenario bears out (and admittedly we’re getting way ahead of ourselves here), expect to see a gradual transition to a new back-end guy or guys.

For the time being, Nathan will continue to get multiple save opportunities. With his large contract, history of success, and importance to the team, the six-time All–Star will be given every chance to succeed.

But at some point the pain to the team will become too much to tolerate, and cold-blooded decisions will have to be made. During that process, look first for a trip to the disabled list to address the “dead arm” issue. Following that, depending on his “re-entry” velocity, a return to the status quo or mop-up duty would present an opportunity for Nathan to re-establish himself.

This circumstance isn’t pretty, but is one way this could play out.

The Bottom Line

Anxious fans should be mindful it’s early, and Joe Nathan’s inconsistency may well be an anomaly that disappears as quickly as it arose in March. It’s too early to panic–there’ll be plenty of time for that in June–so take a breath and observe one of baseball’s many fascinating human dramas that play out over the course of a season.

Like Yogi said, you can observe a lot by just watching.

Rest assured, Joe Nathan is a pre-eminent closer and pitchers of his ilk do not routinely self-destruct in the wake of the highly successful year he enjoyed in 2013.

With any luck he’ll return to his usual All-Star self in short order, and resume spinning his magic for a team in dire need of his services.

At which point his dead arm will become a dead issue, a distant relic of the newborn season.

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  • Matt Pelc

    I think he needs a stint on the DL. During his “dead arm” interview he stated that the best way to get through it is to pitch. That’s fine, pitch in Toledo on a rehab effort. Your closer can not be blowing saves when the team is up by three runs, he just can’t. The Tigers have no good options to take over for closer while he’s gone, so I don’t see it happening. There doesn’t seem to be a good or practical solution for this.

  • chrisHannum

    If it doesn’t turn out that he’s got something wrong with his shoulder I am concerned that this will be a repeat of the Heath Bell debacle: the Fish kept using him in high leverage situations for too long when the stuff just wasn’t there and bumped him at just about the time he turned things around.