I have been critical of Joe Nathan this year — most of us here at Bless You Boys have. I have doubted his ability to pitch effectively and close out big games. Many times I've questioned Brad Ausmus' loyalty to a man who has done so little for this team, reminiscent of his predecessor Jim Leyland.
For someone who has had a Hall of Fame worthy career, it has been very easy to call for his replacement.
To be fair, Nathan has struggled mightily. His ERA currently sits at 5.45 and his BB/9 has ballooned to 3.86 — both the worst of his career. He also has five blown saves. The composed demeanor I remember from his Minnesota Twins' days has been replaced with the look of a worn and tired reliever, desperately searching to regain his form and re-establish his confidence.
Joakim Soria and his 17 saves were brought over right before the trade deadline to help bolster the middle-relief innings for the Tigers' bullpen. But, if anyone looking at the situation is honest with themselves, he was also brought over to be the contingency plan in the event that Nathan completely self-destructs.
But something very curious has happened of late — Joe Nathan has been really good.
On June 7, Nathan surrendered two runs on four hits in one inning of work. The Tigers' offense had provided enough run support that night to allow Max Scherzer to collect his seventh win, and protect Nathan from a blown save or a loss. His ERA after that night was 7.04, however, and Nathan was pitching at his worst. The boos rained down hard on Nathan as a traditionally forgiving Tigers crowd had seen enough.
His next two starts the following week weren't much better, but they are what the pundits like to call "effectively wild." In those two appearances combined, he walked two, gave up two hits, and hit a batter in 1.2 innings. He struggled to regain his form over the next couple of appearances, but collected four saves. By the time June ended, his ERA was almost a full run lower than it had been on June 7.
In fact, since June 7 Joe Nathan has pitched 17.2 innings, striking out 24 batters and only walking six. He has thrown 63 percent of his pitches for strikes and only has one blown save against 10 saves.
Looking past his ERA, you will find that some of his advanced pitching metrics are actually quite good. His 3.59 xFIP is league average at worst and would put him in the same conversation as someone like Mike Dunn or Drew Storen. His 3.18 skill-interactive ERA (SIERA), which focuses more on pitching attributes as a whole, shows that he has actually been above average if not great.
Obviously every stat, sabermetric or traditional, has to be looked at in context — and Nathan has done a lot of bad this year. But underneath all of that, he is an effective pitcher who should be an asset down the stretch. Using all units of measure, including the eye test, you can see a pitcher who is starting to regain form. If Brad Ausmus can use all of his bullpen pieces effectively, the Tigers should have a formidable bullpen for the stretch run.
And if Joe Nathan implodes again, the Tigers have a few options to help pick up the pieces.