It's probably too soon to start comparing Joe Nathan to Jose Valverde. Aside from the fact that they're both named "Joe," there's really not much to compare. Or is there? One closer went from having a solid year with an 88 percent save rate to having a terrible year with a 75 percent save rate, and the other closer went from having a phenomenal year with a 93 percent save rate to ... well, to entering Friday's game with a 76 percent save rate.
One closer saw his ERA jump by 1.81 runs from one year to the next, and the other closer entering Friday's game with an ERA that had jumped by 3.84 runs from his previous year.
One closer pitched 19⅓ innings and blew three saves in his "meltdown year," and the other closer entering Friday's game having pitched 20⅔ innings with four blown saves.
But it's probably too soon to start making these kinds of comparisons.
Still, Nathan's trajectory a third of the way into the season isn't exactly the sort of thing that engenders confidence in a fan base that -- short-term memory issues aside -- feels like it hasn't had a "lights out closer" in a long, long, long time. Then again, it wasn't that long ago that Valverde put up a perfect set of numbers, going 49 for 49 in save opportunities and setting a franchise record for saves in a single season.
It's not as if Nathan has never blown four saves in a single season before, because he has, multiple times. He blew as many as six saves in his 2008 season, five saves in his 2005 and 2009 seasons, and four in his 2007 season. But no big deal, right? Even the great Mariano Rivera topped out at nine blown saves in his 1997 season, and seven blown saves in his 2001 season (the year he posted a whopping 50 saves).
The difficulty here, however, is that Nathan has never blown this many saves this early in a season. The earliest that he'd reached four blown saves prior to this year was Aug. 21, in his 2009 season.
Yes, there are reasons, or at least a wide range of speculation. Maybe it's the decreased velocity, maybe it's command issues, maybe it's "dead arm," or maybe it's just the fact that he's 39 years old and in the twilight of his career. Maybe it's none of those things, maybe he'll get back on track within a few days, and maybe we'll all have forgotten this tempest in a teapot by August.
We can look at Nathan's career numbers and take some comfort there, because those numbers would suggest that what we're seeing is a weird anomaly that ultimately can't be sustained. Then again, that's probably exactly the logic the Tigers were following when they re-signed Valverde in the 2013 season, right before he blew three saves in 19 ⅓ innings and was sent off to Toledo, then later released.
It's highly unlikely Nathan will suffer that same fate, of course, because this is where the comparison between the two Joes breaks down: Nathan has a longer track record of sustained, stunning success than Valverde did, and Nathan's contract this year is worth about five times as much as Valverde's was in 2013.
Still, Nathan is -- judging by the general mood of the Tigers fan base -- a proven closer who now has something to prove. With Joel Hanrahan waiting in the wings, Nathan may need to prove it sooner rather than later.