When the Detroit Tigers signed Joe Nathan last offseason, they thought they were getting one of the premier closers of the 21st century who would lockdown the back end of the bullpen for 2014. While there is no denying the history that Joe Nathan has, there is also no denying that his performance in 2014 was putrid.
I'm not going to sit here and point fingers about the Tigers signing Joe Nathan. When he was inked to a 2 year, $20 million deal this past December, Nathan was coming off of a season where he threw 64 2/3 innings with a 1.89 ERA and a 2.26 FIP. Even at the age of thirty-eight, Joe Nathan was still baffling big league hitters.
I was a huge advocate for the acquisition when the news first broke that the Tigers were interested in him. I knew that his velocity was down compared to previous years, but that didn't seem to matter. I wrote an article in January analyzing his pinpoint command and how he didn't need to blow it by hitters to be effective anymore. Sadly, once 2014 started, none of that mattered when it came to Joe Nathan.
The numbers on Old Joe for the past season were not good. In 58 innings, Nathan had a 4.81 ERA, a 3.94 FIP, an 8.38 K/9, a 4.50 BB/9, and a 69.9 percent LOB%. Also, if you're into the statistic known as the "save," he was 35 for 42 in save opportunities. On the sabermetric side, Nathan was also bad.
Let's take a look at the statistics ERA- and FIP-, which are park adjusted ERA and FIP where 100 is league average and lower is better. In 2013, Joe had an ERA- of 33 and a FIP- 54. Simply dominant. In 2014, it was a totally different story. Nathan posted an ERA- of 123 and a FIP- of 102. While his FIP- was close to league average, it was still almost a full 50 point increase from the season before.
Something else that is worth taking a look at is Joe Nathan's whiff percentage chart for 2013 and 2014. The pitch that I'm analyzing is his four seem fastball because it had the greatest regression between the two seasons.
Despite the one game in March and the month of June, Nathan's whiff percentage on his fastball never fell below 10 percent in 2013. On the contrary, besides the one game in March and the month of June in 2014, Nathan's fastball whiff percentage never rose above 10 percent. What could possibly be the genesis of this significant drop on whiff percentage? Well, it's all about fastball command, which was significantly worse in 2014 than 2013.
As you can see, there were a significant amount of pitches left up in the zone in 2014, and I don't think that was by design. Since his drop in velocity in 2010, Joe Nathan has been a total command pitcher. He no longer has the stuff to make mistakes up in the zone, and the results in 2014 proved that.
Although Joe Nathan was worth 0.2 fWAR in 2014, he was not at all what the Tigers expected or needed when they signed him in the offseason. The Tigers bullpen was arguably the worst in Major League Baseball this season, and Joe Nathan did nothing to help. He was suppose to be the lights out reliever that Detroit so desperately needed. Instead, Nathan was a roller coaster ride that rivaled Jose Valverde's 2012 circus act.
I'm not sure which is worse, the fact that Joe Nathan is under contract for another season, or the 2014 season that Joaquin Benoit, the departed Tigers' reliever, had in San Diego. 1.49 ERA, 2.32 FIP, 10.60 K/9, and 2.32 BB/9, all for about $7.5 million. Talk about salt in the wounds.
As stated by Dave Dombrowski in his recent end of season press conference, Joe Nathan will most likely open 2015 as the closer for the Detroit Tigers. Dombrowski did go on to mention how whether or not he keeps the role will be performance based, but that is all up to manager Brad Ausmus who stated night after night this season that Joe was his closer regardless. Unless Joe Nathan can get back to his 2013 form of commanding his fastball all around the plate, don't expect his numbers to get much better in 2015.