Another year, another problem at the closer position for Detroit. At Comerica Park, booing the man on the mound in the ninth has become tradition.
A conversation about swapping closers merely two months into the season is a disappointing one, but Joe Nathan has shown time and again he is unable to pitch a clean final three outs. The only other real option for Detroit would be Joba Chamberlain, a man who has shown consistency as the set-up man.
Nathan’s numbers as a Tiger have been unsettling. The closer currently has a 7.04 ERA and has saved 13 games in 17 opportunities. A nauseating 1.57 WHIP only adds to the disastrous stat line, as Nathan has allowed at least one baserunner in each of his last five appearances.
So why does manager Brad Ausmus still give Nathan the call in the ninth? About nine million reasons. Nathan signed a two-year, $20 million dollar contract with Detroit over the offseason to be their closer, a position Detroit has struggled with for years. Demoting Nathan would put the 39-year old as the highest paid relief pitcher in the league, tied with another ex-closer, Brian Wilson.
Looking beyond the stats is important in situations involving pitchers, especially those who pitch in relief. Nathan is having his worst year since 2011 when he was with the Minnesota Twins, when Nathan returned from Tommy John surgery and lost the closer role. His ERA and K/9 were the worst of his career (until 2014). Nathan’s past history as a late-inning reliever has been average at best. A $9 million dead weight is a Dombrowski nightmare on a roster filled with stars and one-year contracts.
Nathan is not the only man with a turbulent save history. Back in his pinstripe era, Chamberlain was to be Mariano Rivera’s successor after his retirement. Chamberlain transitioned to a late-innings man in 2010, worked out of the bullpen, and promptly blew four saves in seven opportunities. Chamberlain would not register another save until 2013.
Both pitchers’have rough patches in their closing repertoire, some more recent than others. But the question remains: should Chamberlain be given the nod as a closer?
Ausmus and Nathan have the wonderful luck to be stationed in the AL Central, where winning four of 16 games is but a speed bump while continuing to lead the division. They have time to kill. Removing Nathan can only cause more harm than good, and does not immediately guarantee a solid performance from Chamberlain. If Joba fails as closer, Ausmus has only multiplied the problem. Joba begins doubting his ability and Nathan’s job stability, and any remaining scraps of confidence, are shattered.
A four-game lead in June allows Detroit time to tinker. It also allows time for players to settle down and understand parts of their game that need mending. After the dust settles from the Chamberlain stampede, Nathan will still be the man for Detroit. He has to be.
Richie Cozzolino is co-host of Tiger Talk for Impact Sports.