2015 Player Previews: RHP Joe Nathan

The trials and tribulations of Joe Nathan’s 2014 season have been well documented. He struggled out of the gate, battled dead arm, couldn’t find his fastball, quarreled with the fans, and showed clear signs of aging. But, still owed $10 million this season, the Tigers appear ready to give him another shot as the club’s closer. Is there reason to believe it can work out?

2014 In Review – Joe Nathan

2014 Stats
Detroit 58.0 62 5-4 0.0 4.14 3.94 4.81 .324 8.4 4.5 42% 8.1%

Nathan’s season was a turbulent one, with a number of off-the-field incidents clouding an already troublesome year. What’s surprising though, when you just look at the numbers that Nathan can control, is that his performance actually wasn’t all THAT bad.

This isn’t an endorsement that Nathan was good, or isn’t declining in skill, it’s simply an observation based on the data. His FIP and xFIP were right around four, he struck out nearly a batter per inning, and his average on balls in play came in much higher than would be expected (a full 100 points higher than in 2013 with the Rangers).

His walk rate was of course still alarming, likely the result of trying to add a variety of off-speed and breaking pitches to his repertoire to try and account for the declining velocity on his fastball. His FIP and ERA both even got better in the second half, with a 3.42 FIP and a 3.70 ERA. Again, not great, but probably not quite “this guy needs to be cut immediately!” territory, at least as far as his on-field performance is concerned.

His walk rate of course was still alarming, walking a batter every other inning is dangerous territory, especially for a guy that is expected to pitch almost exclusively late in games that are close. He also struggled mightily as soon as runners got on base, with his wOBA against going from .279 with the bases empty to .374 with runners on, so it’s not as if the season was actually really good. It’s just that it wasn’t quite as bad as it felt at the time, certainly in part due to the other issues that popped up with Nathan and his PR gaffes.

2015 Player Projections

2014 Advanced Projections
Service G IP WAR ERA FIP BAbip K/9 BB/9
ZiPS 54 50.0 0.2 3.78 3.53 .313 8.8 3.8
Steamer 65 65.0 0.0 3.82 3.89 .287 8.1 3.3

Aligning more closely with the 2014 performance, both projections forecast a solid year for Nathan – not one in which he’s a dominant closer by any means, but likely one in which he’s able to hold his own and is serviceable, with ZiPS even forecasting him to be worth a fraction of a run against replacement.

Both systems see an ERA in the upper 3’s, with a strikeout rate above eight and a walk rate above three. It’d be the sort of performance you could accept, though certainly not what you’re hoping to get when you spend $10 million for a certain level of production. But that’s a sunk cost at this point. The question becomes, is that good enough to maintain the closer’s job with Detroit?

The TigsTown Take

We’ve already covered this in multiple areas, but at this point in time, expect Nathan to start the season out as the team’s closer, and be given the chance to keep the job, for at least a month or so.

If he does well, he obviously remains the closer. If he does poorly, he’ll be cut, the Tigers will move Joakim Soria into the closer’s role, and hope some of the young guys are ready to take on an increased role in the bullpen. But if he does what he’s being projected to do, be serviceable, but not great?

That’s the middle ground, and I think the most likely scenario of what we’re going to get out of Nathan. He’ll be good enough that you keep him, but not so good that he’ll eliminate any questions. He’s going to have his share of bad outings, and is likely going to cede some closing opportunities to Soria and/or Bruce Rondon. But, he’s going to stick on the team, even if fans would rather see him gone.

2015 Projections come from two different sources; ZiPS, and Steamer, both publicly available via FanGraphs.com and presented for information purposes only. ZiPS projections come from Dan Szymborski, and Steamer from Steamer Projections, a trio of independent academic researchers.

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