Will Joe Nathan Finally Solve the Tigers' Ninth-Inning Achilles' Heel?

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterDecember 3, 2013

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For the first time in what feels like forever, there's no doubt about who will be taking care of things in the ninth inning for the Detroit Tigers. Rather than a day-by-day question mark, the club now has a clear strength at the closer position.

To a certain degree, anyway.

Ken Rosenthal and Jon Morosi of FOXSports.com were the first to report on Tuesday that the Tigers were closing in on a deal for veteran closer Joe Nathan. Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com has reported that the two sides are in agreement on a two-year contract:

Ken Rosenthal has the financial terms:

It's not a shocker that Nathan has been drawn to the Tigers. It was just a couple of weeks ago that he professed his love for the organization on MLB Network Radio. Via MLB.com's Jason Beck:

I definitely love the Tigers, know them very well, having competed against that squad for so many years when I was with the Twins, knowing some of the guys over there, knowing how deep they are, rotation deep. Their lineup and offense obviously are impressive. I think one of the things is that their defense has definitely improved. It’s a good ballpark to play in, a good crowd to play in front of. Detroit’s definitely a very appealing and attractive team to look at, I think.

The 39-year-old right-hander has spent the last two years closing games for the Texas Rangers. And since the Rangers declined to make Nathan a qualifying offer, signing him doesn't mean a lost draft pick for the Tigers.

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That's not to say there aren't any strings attached to this deal, however. It's coming less than 24 hours after the Tigers traded right-handed starter Doug Fister to the Washington Nationals for spare parts. They saved themselves from having to pay Fister a raise of a couple million dollars in arbitration, and it looks like that money is being rerouted into a contract for Nathan instead.

If that's the case, it's hard to see the logic. Even swapping out an average starter for a closer isn't such a good idea. Swapping out one of the game's best starting pitchers for a closer is certainly not a good idea.

But sure, we can be optimistic for a moment or two. While swapping out Fister for Nathan doesn't look so great, it has to be granted that the Tigers are better off in the ninth inning now than they were before.

Ever since Jose Valverde went 49-for-49 in save opportunities in 2011, the Tigers' issues at closer have been well-documented. Valverde's ERA rose from 2.24 in 2011 to 3.78 in 2012, and he pitched himself out of a job with a series of rotten performances in the postseason.

Things were better in 2013...Sort of.

After some early uncertainty, Joaquin Benoit took over Detroit's closer role in June and finished the season with a 1.98 ERA and 22 saves in 24 tries in his final 41 appearances. But both of his blown saves came in the final week of the regular season, and he was the one who gave up David Ortiz's series-shifting grand slam in Game 2 of the American League Championship Series.

Now along comes Nathan, who brings with him one of the most impressive closer resumes in major-league history.

With Mariano Rivera retired, Nathan is MLB's active saves leader with 341, and he's the only member of the 300-save club with fewer than 40 career blown saves (he has 38). For some perspective, Nathan has as many career saves as Hall of Fame member Rollie Fingers, but 29 fewer blown saves.

Then there's what Nathan did in 2013. Courtesy of FanGraphs, here are the key numbers:

Joe Nathan's 2013 Season

The 1.39 ERA Nathan posted was the second lowest of his career after the 1.33 ERA he posted in 2008, and that 2.5 fWAR was his best since 2006.

That 2.5 fWAR also put Nathan in elite company among his contemporaries. It tied him for third among qualified relievers, behind only Greg Holland and Koji Uehara, and ahead of Craig Kimbrel.

To be fair to Benoit, he had a darn good season in his own right, finishing with a 2.01 ERA and a 1.6 fWAR that tied him for ninth among qualified relievers. When Benoit had the ball, the Tigers were quietly in pretty good hands right up until he ran out of gas at the end of the season.

Based on both track records and 2013 performance, however, going from Benoit to Nathan is undeniably a significant upgrade for the Tigers. One way to put it is that they've gone from solid closer to "proven closer."

If you're looking for the inevitable catch, however, here it is: Nathan shouldn't be expected to be the otherworldly dominant closer he was in 2013 all over again in 2014.

The Steamer projections for Nathan, which you can view at FanGraphs, see his ERA going from 1.39 to 2.70 and his WAR from 2.5 to 0.8. "Regression" is the word that fits, and it's fair to expect Nathan to experience some of that regardless of the numbers he ends up with.

As good as Nathan is, his 2013 season was a classic case of everything going right all at once. Here are a couple of things that stand out:

Joe Nathan's 2013 Season vs. Career

Since line drives are more likely to result in hits than any other type of batted ball, it doesn't make sense that Nathan's BABIP decreased despite a line-drive percentage much higher than usual. It also doesn't make sense that he saw so few fly balls go over the fence despite a relatively normal fly-ball percentage. 

Especially not in light of Nathan's more recent history. From 2008 to 2012, his HR/FB rate was over nine percent each year, and rising to boot. He did add a sinker to his arsenal along the way, but it didn't play that much of a role in 2013.

Per Brooks Baseball, Nathan's sinker only accounted for about 15 percent of his pitches. And while it did pick up more ground balls than his four-seamer, his sinker didn't get in the way of him posting one of the lowest ground-ball rates of his career at an even 32 percent.

Elsewhere, it also doesn't make much sense that Nathan's strikeout rate finished above his career norm despite a swinging-strike rate below his career norm. Contributing to the suspicion is how, according to Brooks Baseball, the whiff/swing rate on Nathan's four-seamer rose even while its velocity fell.

For that matter, the velocity on all of Nathan's pitches—four-seamer, sinker, slider and curveball—fell in 2013. He still has good stuff as far as stuff goes, but hardly overpowering stuff relative to other closers and, indeed, what he used to feature.

For what it's worth, the 0.8 fWAR that Steamer is projecting for Nathan in 2014 is twice as good as the 0.4 fWAR projected for Benoit, so the notion that the Tigers are better off at closer now than they were before still stands.

It's also worth noting that Nathan's projected fWAR is better than those projected for Fernando Rodney, Grant Balfour and Brian Wilson. The Tigers went after the best closer they could have possibly acquired on the free-agent market, and that's what they should get in 2014.

To that end, the Tigers' agreement with Nathan is a case of mission accomplished.

But because it's hard to imagine Nathan repeating the season he had in 2013, this agreement is less than a slam dunk destined to go down as one of general manager Dave Dombrowski's all-time greatest moves. And while Nathan is a fine addition to Detroit's bullpen, it's hard to say with a straight face that it looks like a better overall team after parting with Fister on Monday.

The Tigers may have a shiny new closer lined up for 2014, but they're not better positioned to win the World Series than they were a day ago.

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.

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