May 29, 2014; Oakland, CA, USA; Detroit Tigers relief pitcher Joe Nathan (36) reacts during the ninth inning against the Oakland Athletics at Coliseum. The Tigers defeated the Athletics 5-4. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

What's the deal with Joe Nathan?

With the Tigers’ continued bullpen failures highlighted in the playoffs, the organization listened to the cries of fans and inked high profile Joe Nathan to a $14MM deal for two seasons, including a club option for the 2016 season worth $10MM. He was coming off one of his best seasons after posting a 1.39 ERA and 2.26 FIP, and saving 43 of 46 opportunities. Nathan had been given the coveted “proven closer” label, meaning he was a supposed safe option to lock down 9th inning save opportunities. The problem with dishing out big money for a proven closer is, there’s no such thing as one.

Joe Nathan was projected as a top closer in the game heading into 2014 by fantasy pundits and advanced projection systems alike. But what makes baseball such a beautiful sport can make it a disastrous one as well. Nothing has gone right for Nathan this year. He’s already blown more saves than last year (four) and seen his ERA and FIP balloon to 7.04 and 4.95. Nathan’s peripherals also back up his catastrophic campaign, his 20.4% strikeout rate and 10.7% walk rate are both his worst career marks since transferring full time to the bullpen in 2003.

The issue with any poor performance is always trying to find out what’s causing it. Baseball is a long sport that focuses more on endurance and averages, not sprints and hot streaks. A lot can happen two months into a season, but sharp skills and velocity decline from a 39 year old pitcher with one Tommy John surgery already on his resume is less than encouraging.

The problem with Joe Nathan goes a little deeper than the loss of velocity. Some of his decrease in number of strikeouts can be explained by it, but that doesn’t explain the added walks or hits. Last year, part of Nathan’s success came off of keeping all his pitches away from both right handed and left handed hitters. This year has been a different story. He is letting the ball travel more towards the middle of the zone, letting batters drive it to the tune of a .349 wOBA.

Not only is his location suffering, but his curveball has been ineffective as well. It’s lost over two inches of vertical drop this season, going from 4.7 inches last year to 2.4 in 2014. Because of the drop hitters are chasing it less, down from 37.1% to only 20.8%. Where it was only hit for a .256 wOBA in 2013, hitters are pounding the less effective pitch for a .553 wOBA this season. To string it all together Joe Nathan’s curveball, which was once such a key part of his arsenal, has become one of the worse pitches in the game and left him without one of his best tools.


Nathan’s curveball in 2013


Nathan’s curveball in 2014

It’s easy to see from the video even just how much the pitch has declined. There’s no late bite to the pitch, just a soft fade that’s easy to see coming because of the arm action.

It’s easy to point at Nathan’s luck stats and say he’s going to regress towards better numbers. His BABIP is .313, much higher than his .255 career average. But the problem with expecting it to fall back down is that he’s allowing many more ground balls which have a higher balls in play average. The last time he had a ground ball rate this high (38%) his BABIP was .306 which is hardly a far cry from this year’s. Plus, his xBABIP (an indicator of where his BABIP should fall or climb) is at .326, meaning he could be allowing more hits still.

Joe Nathan won’t keep his ERA above 7 for long, but the problems with him run deeper than just bad luck. There are legitimate issues with how he’s approaching his decline, and it’s not pretty to watch. Nathan’s age has caught up to him and the Tigers are once again about to go on the closer merry-go-round. Even with the elite team put together, the bullpen is once again in shambles and no better off than last year, if not worse. And Joe Nathan’s deterioration has played a vital part in the destruction.

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