Joe Nathan will tell you he was working on something. This is true. Any veteran of spring training will tell you not to look at the stats or try to form much of a narrative. This is true as well. But in the case of the Tigers' 40-year-old closer, the narratives have already been built, and they're playing out exactly as expected. And that is a concern. A big one.
Thursday Nathan was booed off the mound. In spring training. This is probably not unprecedented for spring training -- and it is certainly not unprecedented in the life of Nathan -- but let's put it into perspective. Spring training crowds are just happy to be there. Especially at Joker Marchant Stadium.
It's hot. It's sunny. It's relaxing. There are strawberry shortcakes. There are palm trees beyond the outfield wall. There are snowbirds happy to see their home state baseball team playing nearby. There are working people from the north down on vacation from the snow and gray. The game is casual. The access to the players is easy. Spring training is a wonderful time.
It's hard to be all that mad during it, and fans seldom are. But Tigers fans booed Nathan off the mound. Who could blame them? Nathan allowed the Phillies to bat around. He gave up six runs on five hits and a walk (two runs unearned after a two-out error by Jordan Lennerton). He didn't get out of the inning. This is exactly what everyone fears of the Tigers' closer, who will inevitably head north with the club in April.
On the radio broadcast Dan Dickerson and Jim Price couldn't help but notice what an aberration Nathan's inning was in the game. It would be hard not to. Justin Verlander mowed through Philadelphia's lineup in 28 pitches during three innings. He faced the minimum nine batters.
The Phillies failed to score any runs in any other frame but the one thrown by Nathan. They struggled to hit anyone well. But they simply teed off on Nathan, whose stuff fooled no one and came in grooved as if it were batting practice. Chris McCosky of the Detroit News noted "his slider appeared flatter than usual and his fastball, regardless of velocity (88-90) seemed lifeless."
Speaking with reporters (including McCosky) after the game, Nathan had this to say:
"I didn't feel like maybe there was as much life today as I had, but still had some pretty good movement," said Nathan, who said at times his two-seam fastball and sinker were effective. "I feel like during spring you're going to go through games here and there where it doesn't feel like you have as much in your legs, as much zip on your pitches, but that's what this process is about.
"It's about going out there, going through the little bumps in the road during spring. As much as you don't want to go out there and throw 30-something pitches, these can tend to be the ones that get you over the hump and get you extended."
You could point out that Nathan hadn't allowed a run yet this spring, which is entirely true but somewhat misleading. He made three scoreless appearances before Thursday's game. Yet, right from the start he has been worrisome. On March 3, Nathan mowed through the first two batters he saw in Grapefruit League play on four pitches. It took 17 more pitches to get the third out. He allowed back-to-back hits before stranding the runners at second and third. Nathan seemed in midseason form, and that's not a good thing.
The hope is that Nathan will bounce back from his struggles of 2014. Coming off a season during which he saved 43 games and had a 1.89 ERA with the Rangers, Nathan struggled from the start with the Tigers. Even in spring training he did not look right and it continued right into the season. By the end of play June 7 Nathan had a 7.04 ERA, four blown saves and two losses.
He improved in the second half, posting a 3.70 ERA after the All-Star break and blowing just two saves. Even then he allowed about one and a half baserunners per inning on the mound -- not a shutdown closer by any measure. It's not impossible that Nathan has one last year in his arm. But with each passing appearance that fails to give confidence, it seems unrealistic.
It costs nothing during spring training to see if Nathan indeed has anything left in the tank. The Tigers will look at him, closely, every chance they get. Manager Brad Ausmus may express confidence in him, as he already has. Don't read too much into that. GM Dave Dombrowski may say something in support as well. But you can never read too much into that. It's even likely Nathan will come north with the club to Detroit.
This is not ideal from a fan standpoint -- and the phrase "April games count as much as September" will come up -- but it remains in the Tigers' best interest to see if Nathan has anything left. The Tigers won't be able to wait long for Nathan to rediscover himself before they have a decision to make. Today, it seems likely what that decision will eventually be.