The air of heaven is that which blows between a horse's ears -- Arabian Proverb
We all have our quirks. Things we do when we're happy, excited, nervous, or downright scared. These can manifest themselves in any number of ways and have different levels of control we can place upon them. Some folks fidget with their fingers. Others get wide-eyed or perhaps talk at a rapid pace. Golfers have crazy little motions and ticks as they get ready to strike a shot. Then there are plenty of people, like a certain Proven Closer wearing an Olde English D, that seem to change their pattern of breathing including deep breaths to clear stress.
Let's just put it out there ... when dealing with stress on the mound, Joe Nathan likes to inhale deeply and let it out as though he's a horse in the stable with his lips flapping in the air on the exhale. I've started calling him "Seabiscuit," to be honest. (author's note: after watching Nathan for a couple of months, I've started doing the same thing when there is a chore to do around the house that I don't feel like doing. I have a great horse exhale! It doesn't seem to help me get things done however, but it provides a good chuckle.)
The Nathan horse breathing pales in comparison to things we've seen the last few years of course. Jose Valverde's gyrations and faces provided endless entertainment or consternation depending on your view. Fernando Rodney might have went 37–38 in save opportunities in his season as the closer, but he wore his hat off to the side to the dismay of many and had a legion of followers swear he looked scared out there (I found both of these sentiments on Rodney highly questionable, but it was out there in various forums). Then there was Todd Jones. He never met a joke he didn't want to crack and that was probably, deep down, a use of humor as a stress reliever from his gig.
The thing about Nathan seems to be that the horse exhales seem to pick up ferocity as the situation he is facing on the mound gets more dire. If he's throwing free and easy and hitting his spots the inhales seem far less pronounced and the exhales only produce a slight tremor to his lips. When a run is already in and more runners are on base the breaths get deeper and the exhales suddenly explode out with his lips flapping like a flag in a stiff breeze.
This being an analytically driven site for the most part, it's important to rate these instances and try to determine what level of stress Nathan, or any reliever, might be feeling. So today let's unveil a first draft. The "Nathan Equine Breathing Intensity Scale"— NEBIS for short. We will break it down into three categories for now, but we at the NEBIS Research Institute are open for suggestions and revisions.
NEBIS LEVEL 1: The Secretariat
This NEBIS threat level is a low-level situation. Thursday night in Anaheim was a good example. Nathan had a two-run lead to protect and was facing the 7-8-9 batters in the inning. He struck out the side and generated a half-dozen swing-n-miss pitches. He was feeling good and the only noticeable horse exhales caught on camera that inning were very slight, short, and seemingly relaxed. Nathan was feeling good like Secretariat must have when he was pulling away from the field at The Belmont.
NEBIS LEVEL 2: The Hi-Yo Silver
These are the outings when Nathan has been gifted a pretty big lead but he's leaking oil fast allowing runs. The breaths get intensified perhaps simply from being ticked off he can't polish this game off quickly. He probably wants to wear a mask like the Lone Ranger did when mounted on Silver.
NEBIS LEVEL 3: The Daily Double
Racetracks all over have their Daily Double wagers that can be made. For Nathan, the Daily Double is reserved for the highest stress situations. Lead evaporating, runners on base, pitches not cooperating. It's spots like this when Nathan will unleash not one horse exhale, but he'll occasionally resort to a second to clear the cobwebs. Double Lip Flap between pitches is a sure sign of trouble and impending doom.
So be on the lookout for heavy breathing the next time Nathan takes the hill. NEBIS analysts will be as well.
Looking back and looking forward
Joe Nathan has been a bit of a sore topic for many this season. It all started with some unfortunate timing. Nathan was inked to a two-year deal by the Tigers just a few hours after the Doug Fister trade that generated no small amount of backlash at the Tigers. The appearance of the Tigers mostly shuttling Fister off to Washington to clear salary space for a Nathan signing was definitely there. A short book can probably be written debating the merits of dealing off a solid starting pitcher in his prime in order to sign an aging relief ace.
Nathan is a legendary closer, however, and he was coming off one of his better seasons in Texas. No matter how one felt about the merits of signing aging pitchers to large contracts or felt about the Fister deal, it was impossible to say Nathan wasn't a good pitcher. There were few people who could have predicted the mass drop in production that was about to be witnessed in 2014.
Sure, you could see the ultra-low home run rate in 2013 was unsustainable and that he wasn't likely to match the sub-2 ERA in Detroit. But a small step back was still going to be perfectly acceptable for the Tigers bullpen. This has been no "small step," however — this has been the "giant leap" into the abyss for much of the season save for a few small stretches and moments like Thursday night versus the Angels.
Much has been made about the Tigers working with him to change his arm slot and get his command and life back on his pitches. But it was interesting to hear Keith Law on the Buster Olney podcast late last week mention how tinkering with the arm slot of a veteran pitcher like Nathan was pretty much the last bullet to fire and a shot in the dark. Law seemed to hint at desperation being the mode the Tigers are in with Nathan.
Investing so much prospect value (Jake Thompson and Cory Knebel) at this deadline to procure Joakim Soria is another sign the Tigers know that Nathan has lost something that may or may not come back. Soria is being given the 7th inning to get things started in Detroit, but he is positioned to take over the 9th in case Nathan continues to scuffle along in unacceptable fashion.
Can Nathan put it together down the stretch and not only hold the job but thrive once again? Short answer ... yes. We're talking about another 25 innings or so this season. It won't take a lot. A few breaks go his way, he finds a groove, gets a few three-run lead save opportunities, and suddenly he's the man again.
Nathan's strikeout percentage is 24.9 right now. That's below the norms of his career and won't look good next to Craig Kimbrel. But it's probably good enough to get by and judging by his more recent outings, the K-rate could be on the rise. Nathan's 9.5 walk percentage is just a tick over his career rate and wouldn't seem to comprise a big part of his struggles.
The postseason? Well that's anybody's guess. If the postseason was a factor in signing Nathan, then it's questionable why he was ever brought aboard. His playoff resume is not good. However, his postseason stats comprise a 9.00 ERA in nine innings spread out over several seasons. You really can't draw any conclusions from that.
Joe Nathan has had an amazing run anchoring major league bullpens. The time could be drawing to a close at the wrong time for the Tigers. Can he turn it around in time to stave off Soria, nail down big outs, and play a role in a championship run? Pay attention to the NEBIS level for some clues along the way!