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Joe Nathan struggles, again

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Can Joe Nathan regain the dominance that the Tigers expected?

Joe Nathan reacts during the ninth inning against the Texas Rangers at Comerica Park on May 25, 2014
Joe Nathan reacts during the ninth inning against the Texas Rangers at Comerica Park on May 25, 2014
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

I must admit that on Tuesday night, I fell asleep just after Scherzer balked in a run. Wednesday morning, my wife woke to her smartphone. She quickly checked the score, and we celebrated the good news of a comeback victory. Joe Nathan had slammed the door in the ninth inning.

Wednesday night, I fell asleep with Sanchez in complete control though the offense was sputtering. At dawn, my wife looked at the box score and groaned. Three runs in the ninth meant that Nathan had allowed a walk-off home run.

Thursday was a day game, and Nathan was given more than a one run lead. So we had the joy of watching Nathan earn a save, his 13th of the year. He allowed four base runners and three runs, demonstrating the uselessness of the save stat.

With two rough outings in three days, is our "proven closer" toast? Is it time to panic and consider options? Do we need to hope that Joel Hanrahan can regain all of his command a year after Tommy John surgery, when it was not that great before surgery?

First, let's look at Joe Nathan compared to recent closers for Detroit.

Year Name Saves Blown Svs ERA FIP WHIP BB/9 K/9
2014 Joe Nathan 13 4 5.23 4.94 1.31 3.92 8.71
2013 Joaquin Benoit 24 2 2.01 2.87 1.03 2.96 9.81
2013 Jose Valverde 9 3 5.59 6.36 1.24 2.79 8.84
2012 Jose Valverde 35 5 3.78 3.62 1.25 3.52 6.26
2011 Jose Valverde 49 0 2.24 3.55 1.19 4.23 8.59
2010 Jose Valverde 26 3 3.00 3.78 1.16 4.57 9.00
2009 Fernando Rodney 37 1 4.40 4.56 1.47 4.88 10.93
2008 Todd Jones 18 3 4.97 5.60 1.63 3.89 3.02
2007 Todd Jones 38 6 4.26 3.92 1.42 3.38 4.84

Keep in mind that offense has declined over the last seven years.

Going into Thursday's game Joe Nathan had converted 75% of his save opportunities, the same rate as Jose Valverde last year. We ran Papa Grande out of town on a rail for such failure.

We celebrated Valverde's emotion in 2011 when he was perfect in save opportunities. Joe Nathan has a lower walk rate and higher strikeout rate, and going into Thursday his WHIP was actually lower. But Valverde's epically bad 2013 had a lower walk rate and higher strikeout rate. It was just that he was eminently hittable, and allowed a home run about every 3 innings. This is Joe Nathan's problem in 2014. His rate of home runs allowed has gone up by 6.5 times over last year, to a home run every 5 innings.  This is more than double his career rate.

Joe Nathan is 39 years old. While Todd Jones was still closing games for Detroit at 40, we were not looking for a roller coaster ride this year. Are Nathan's numbers trending with age?

2014 5.23 4.94 1.31 3.92 8.71
2013 1.39 2.26 0.90 3.06 10.16
2012 2.80 2.78 1.06 1.82 10.91
2011 4.84 4.28 1.16 2.82 8.66
2009 2.10 2.88 0.93 2.88 11.67

This year’s high FIP indicates that the high ERA is not a fluke. His WHIP and walk rate have not been this high since Bill Clinton was president. He was a starting pitcher then, and soon to have shoulder surgery.  His strikeout rate has only been this low in one season. So the numbers are telling a troubling tale.

What could be causing the decline? Could is just be random variation over 20 innings, and bad luck with a few balls just barely clearing the fence? His line drive, ground ball, and fly ball rates are all typical for him. His fastball usage is down to 50%, well below his career rate of 61%. His velocity is declining, averaging 91.3 down from 92.2 last year. He is compensating by throwing 36% sliders. The slider is still his best pitch, though the effectiveness is declining. He uses his curveball 12% of the time and it is getting hammered.

Batters are laying off more pitches outside of the strike zone, but it is over the plate where the problems show up. Hitters are only swinging at 62% of strikes, a career low. They must be looking for their pitch, because when they do swing at a strike they make contact 88% of the time.

The most encouraging news is that Joe Nathan’s 2014 season, by the numbers, looks an awful lot like his 2011 season with the Twins. He was coming off of Tommy John surgery that year and it took time to regain his dominant form. Joe Nathan did confess that he was struggling with a dead arm in spring training, which was typical but taking longer than usual to work though. This year his fastball is not as fast, and slider is not as sharp.

Joe Nathan's home run rate will surely decrease. He may be able to regain dominance as he did in 2012, but we do not have a year to wait and this may be all that he has left in the tank. It could easily be Chamberlain or Hanrahan closing games come October.