Last year, the Tigers came within two wins of a trip to their second straight World Series despite one of the league's shakiest bullpens. The signing of free agent closer Joe Nathan was supposed to fix that glaring problem, but the 39-year-old closer has hardly been part of the solution. On Tuesday night, Nathan retired just one of five Blue Jays he faced and took the loss, the fourth time in two weeks he's been roughed up.
Nathan entered a 0-0 tie in the top of the ninth and quickly got two strikes on Anthony Gose, the Blue Jays' No. 9 hitter, but then proceeded to throw four straight balls to walk him. Gose then stole second base and took third on Jose Reyes' single through the left side of the infield. After Melky Cabrera popped up on the first pitch of his at-bat, it looked as though Nathan might escape when he got Jose Bautista to hit a first-pitch groundball, but it snuck past shortstop Andrew Romine to score the game's first run.
With a full count on Edwin Encarnacion, Nathan tried to pick Reyes off at third base, but in a very close play, Reyes was called safe by umpire Brian Gorman, and Tigers manager Brad Ausmus' challenge was unsuccessful. Encarnacion walked, at which point Ausmus gave Nathan the hook and started a bullpen parade. Ian Krol allowed a sacrifice fly to pinch-hitter Kevin Pillar, and then Al Alburquerque served up a three-run homer to Brett Lawrie, running the score to 5-0. The Tigers scored three in the bottom of the frame on J.D. Martinez's home run, but it wasn't enough; they went down in defeat for the third straight game and the 11th time in 15 games.
Nathan has played a significant part in that slide. On May 21 against the Indians, he blew a save by allowing a game-tying two-run homer to David Murphy; Detroit wound up losing in 13 innings. He pitched scoreless innings in his next two chances (one mop-up inning, one save), but on May 28 against the A's, he entered with one out and one on in the ninth and promptly yielded a single and then a three-run walkoff homer to Josh Donaldson. Called on the next night to preserve a three-run lead, he yielded three hits, one walk and two runs but managed to get the save. That was his last appearance before Tuesday night's debacle.
That's 12 baserunners and 10 runs allowed in Nathan's last six appearances covering 4 1/3 innings. It's not his first rough stretch since signing a two-year, $20 million deal with the Tigers back in December, either; he blew two saves and yielded five runs in a three-game stretch in early April. In all, he has converted 13 saves but blown four. That's not only more than any full-time closer this year — two pitchers have five and two others have four, but all have spent time in setup capacities, with "blown saves" in innings before the ninth — but it's also more than he's blown in any season since 2009, his last one before undergoing Tommy John surgery.
Nathan's ERA now stands at a chunky 6.86, the highest of any pitcher with more than five saves this year. His .281 batting average on balls in play, while 25 points higher than his career mark, isn't astronomical, but he's exacerbated his problems with high walk and homer rates (4.7 and 1.7 per nine, respectively). His strikeout rate has slipped substantially; on a per plate appearance basis, it's fallen from 29.2 percent last year to 21.7 percent this year. Granted, it's all in a sample of just 21 innings, but it's nonetheless a shock given how dominant he was last year with the Rangers, when he converted 43 of 46 save opportunities, posted a 1.39 ERA and earned All-Star honors for the sixth time in his career.
While Nathan's age is a concern, this isn't a matter of a sudden dropoff in velocity; via BrooksBaseball.net, the average velocity of his four-seam fastball is 93.36 mph, 0.01 higher than last year, and the velocities of his other pitches are in line with 2013 as well. Particularly against lefties, his ratio of four-seamers to sinkers has changed; where he was at 29.4 percent of the former and 24.2 percent of the latter last year, he's at 44.4 percent and 9.1 percent this year. He's gotten away from throwing the sinker to start an at-bat or when he's behind in the count, but the results on contact suggest it's the four-seamer that's been the issue. Where he yielded a .129 batting average and .290 slugging percentage when lefties made contact with the pitch last year, they're at .308 and .539 this year; his BABIP in those circumstances has more than doubled, from .188 to .375.
Nathan was booed off the Comerica Park mound on Tuesday night, but he took his struggles in stride. Via MLB.com's Jason Beck:
"Sometimes, that's all you can do, is laugh," Nathan said.
…"Did I make a pitch? Absolutely," Nathan said [of the Bautista grounder]. "Did I get the result I wanted to, a ground ball? Absolutely. But unfortunately, it was put into position where, right into a spot where both fielders were kind of going after it, and I think it got into a spot where it was confusing which one would get it."
Ausmus has expressed confidence in Nathan amid his recent struggles, and he avoided suggesting that he was going to change closers, telling reporters, "I certainly wouldn't answer that right now… I would talk to Joe before I made that public knowledge."
Alas, Ausmus' options are limited, because Nathan isn't the only Tigers reliever who's struggling. Via a dreadful April backed with a strong showing in May (ERAs of 5.37 and 3.44, respectively), the bullpen's 4.52 ERA ranks 13th in the league, up from 4.01 last year, and if that's not bad enough, its 36 percent rate of allowing inherited runners to score is 13th as well. While setup addition Joba Chamberlain (2.59 ERA, 1.66 FIP, zero homers allowed) has been very good, Alburquerque (3.38 ERA, 3.81 FIP, 1.5 HR/9) has been gopher-prone, as has the lefty Krol (1.4 HR/9, but just a 2.29 ERA), and Phil Coke (6.50 ERA) has once again pitched his way into low-leverage oblivion. As with last year, when rookie Bruce Rondon failed to claim the closer's job in spring training and Jose Valverde proved to be as washed up as his 2012 postseason suggested — thus forcing setup man Joaquin Benoit into the ninth-inning role — the team appears to be at least one late-inning arm short, a problem that won't simply be fixed by moving Chamberlain into the closer role based on his recent run.
With Benoit and Valverde now gone and Rondon down for the year due to Tommy John surgery, the void has yet to be filled from within. Righty Evan Reed has pitched adequately (3.57 ERA, 7.5 K/9) in a low-leverage role but offers little besides high velocity. Luke Putkonen is on the disabled list due to shoulder inflammation, and rookie Corey Knebel, a supplementary first-round pick in last year's draft, was roughed up for three runs in his May 24 debut. On May 2, general manager Dave Dombrowski signed free agent Joel Hanrahan, who saved 76 games for the Pirates in 2011-12, but he's working his way back from Tommy John surgery. He only began throwing off a mound on May 21, and has yet to face live hitters, let alone head out on a rehab assignment or assume late-inning responsibilities with the big club. Thus, the Tigers will have to muddle through with some combination of their current options. The good news is that even amid their struggles, they're still 31-23, owners of the league's third-best record and a four-game cushion in the AL Central, where no other team is above .500. After hosting Toronto and Boston, their next 14 games come within the division. They've got time for Nathan and the rest of the bullpen to sort things out, but if Ausmus' Tigers are to capture the title that eluded predecessor Jim Leyland, they'll need to lock up those late innings.