Is it time for Joba Chamberlain to give closer Joe Nathan a rest?


Mandatory Credit:

David Manning


Prior to the start of the season, I wrote about Joba Chamberlain being the possible steal of the winter signing by Dave Dombrowski, if Chamberlain could only get his issues worked out and pitch at the level his talent indicated was possible. Though it hasn’t been easy for Joba, he’s given up runs in situations that have hurt the team, the same can be said for any reliever, or any pitcher in any situation for that matter. Pitchers are people after all, sometimes weird, idiosyncratic people, but people just the same and we all know the old saying to err is human.

It’s not difficult to find Chamberlain’s photo negative from the off season on the squad, look no further than closer Joe Nathan. While heads were scratched and Dombrowski was second guessed at the signing of Joba Chamberlain, fans widely rejoiced when the news was received that veteran, and proven closer Nathan had signed a two year, $20 million dollar to finish out games for the Tigers. There were dissenters of course, Nathan is 39 years old, $20 million dollars is a lot of money, etc. so it was to be expected, but the overall reaction was very different, and much more positive than the reaction to the Chamberlain signing.

So what have these two relievers done this season? Let’s begin at the end, with Nathan.

Nathan is 2-1(not the best for a closer, as when a closer is ON, both of those numbers should be zeroes) with a 5.23 ERA. He’s pitched 20.2 innings, and given up 18 hits, 9 walks, 12 runs and four long balls while striking out 20 for a WHIP of 1.306. Ouch. That’s not the worst part, though. In 17 opportunities, Nathan has 13 saves. That’s a SV% of 76%, by FAR the lowest of his career(the next lowest is 82% in 2011, his first season back after Tommy John surgery). Not exactly what the Tigers’ and their fans were expecting. This isn’t to say it’s been all bad with Nathan. When he’s been on, it’s been fabulous. Quick 1-2-3 ninth innings with no base runners. Beautifully painted corners for called strikes. For awhile, it looked like Joe had it all figured out. I wrote about that too. It just didn’t last.

Moving on to Chamberlain, Joba is 1-2 with a 2.70 ERA. In 23.1 innings, he’s given up 22 hits, 6 walks, 8 runs, and no home runs and he’s blown one save in three chances. He’s struck out 29 batters and has a WHIP of 1.243, a marked improvement over the 1.738 he posted in 2013. It hasn’t been all sunshine and puppies for Joba either, he’s come up short and blown leads several times himself. Again, these guys are human and mistake pitches are hard to avoid in totality.

So, from a statistical standpoint, Chamberlain has out-pitched Nathan. Of course you can’t overlook the fact that Nathan pitches the ninth inning, the final three outs, the hardest outs of the game. The added mental pressure of closing the game counts for something, if it didn’t the term proven closer wouldn’t exist. So there’s that. But from what we saw of Joe Nathan this week, frustrated and wound up and beating himself up on the field, even after notching a save against the A’s, he may need a little breather.

I am not suggesting removing Nathan from the closer role, that is not going to happen unless things get almost unimaginably ugly, and there are 20 million reasons why. But I don’t think it would be the worst thing for Nathan to take a little vacation on the 15-day DL and clear his head. It’s obvious he’s frustrated and struggling and perhaps a little time to work on everything is all he needs. Putting him on the DL would give him that opportunity without any needless embarrassment, with the way he’s been pitching it wouldn’t surprise many to hear he’s got a stiff neck or something of the like. And while Nathan gets his mind right, why not give Joba a chance at closing out games? He’s been far better than anyone expected, he’s bounced back stronger from his failures every time this season, and he’s been the Tigers’ most reliable reliever. Who would have anticipated that statement when he was signed?

Is any of this likely? Probably not. But it makes sense for now. At least until we get a real look at what Joel Hanrahan is going to bring to the table. ‘Cause that could change things quite a bit too.