Joakim Soria recorded his fifth save as the Detroit Tigers' closer on Monday night, easily maintaining his perfect record thus far in the season. In very efficient style, Soria continues to do everything he can to make Brad Ausmus' decision for him in regard to the Tigers' closer situation. While Joe Nathan has been sidelined by injury, Soria has seized the ninth inning and made it his own.
At this point, very early in the season, Soria has allowed exactly two singles in 6.2 innings pitched. He has yet to walk a batter, and has four strikeouts to his record. His WHIP stands at a minuscule .30 at this point. The sole earned run he allowed came in large part as the result of defensive indifference in a game 10 days ago, as the Cleveland Indians' Mike Aviles was allowed to take second base after a single before Jason Kipnis singled him home.
While Joe Nathan's rehab from a flexor strain in his pitching well has gone well, and he should return from the disabled list as soon as he's eligible on April 22, he's likely to find himself in an unfamiliar position when he rejoins the Tigers' bullpen. There is little time left for Soria to lose any traction by struggling in the ninth inning. He's made it very difficult for Tigers' manager Brad Ausmus to consider restoring Nathan as the Tigers' closer.
Asked last Wednesday whether Nathan would return to the closer's role upon his return, Ausmus responded, "That's the plan. We'll see what happens, but that's the plan." This is probably nothing more than smart diplomacy on Ausmus' part. There's absolutely no reason for him to break any faith with Joe Nathan at this point, nor to make any decision on the subject just yet. But there is plenty of room in that statement for Soria to end the discussion. Asked again after last night's 2-1 win over the New York Yankees, Ausmus was again asked about Nathan, and replied that he'd "worry about the closer situation when Joe Nathan gets back."
Those observers well-schooled in the numbers can say, with some evidence, that the most crucial situations in a close game are as likely to arise in the 8th inning as in the 9th. Possibly some might argue that the Tigers are better served with Soria in the eighth inning, setting up games for Nathan in the ninth. But the simple truth is that no manager in baseball appears to believe that. The pressure of the final outs, and the tensions of fan outrage over any failings make it one of the tougher positions in the game to succeed at long-term. A manager can't know in advance where the highest leverage situations will come, and baseball players are creatures of habit, unlikely to thrive in constantly shifting roles. The best reliever on a team needs to be pitching the ninth inning with slim leads. And right now, it appears very clear that Joakim Soria is the best man for the job.
This doesn't mean that Joe Nathan can't still hold an important role in the Tigers' bullpen. His fundamental problem last year was in issuing too many walks, and struggling badly with runners on base. Opposing batters didn't hit him with much power. His strikeout rate was down, but a rate of 8.38 K/9 is plenty good enough to pitch effectively in the late innings. More than anything else, improved command and a corresponding drop in his walk rate could very easily lead to a solid bounce-back year for Nathan. Despite their age difference, it bears noting that Joakim Soria doesn't throw any harder than Nathan does at this point in their careers. Command was Nathan's issue, and it's one that could certainly be remedied.
For his part, Joe Nathan understands the situation perfectly, and is saying all the right things. He was quoted yesterday in reference to concerns about his role by celebrating the teams early success and saying, "I am 40 years old. I am not worried about losing a role or doing anything but winning ballgames."
The Tigers' fanbase should hope that Soria continues to perform well, and that Nathan returns and pitches well enough to handle a set-up role. He may find much more success with a stronger defensive unit behind him this season. Using Nathan in the seventh or eighth inning also makes it easier to control his innings and keep him fresh. And if it worked out that way, the Tigers' will have turned a relative weakness into a strength for the long season ahead. The ball is in Soria's court. Thus far he's done nothing but run with it. As long as that's the case it's going to be highly controversial for Ausmus to do anything to disrupt that groove. I don't think he will.