Last night, Joe Nathan failed to close out the Mariners, turning a 2-run lead into a 1-run deficit. The Rangers were unable to battle back in the bottom of the inning, leaving a loss on the ledger in a game where Colby Lewis was near-perfect.
And yet, I’m not really worried. For one thing, the Mariners got to Ogando, too. That’s the first time this season Ogando has been anything less than stellar. Honestly, you could just chalk it up to the Mariners being particularly well-prepared for the bullpen that night, or being frustrated by Colby’s slower, controlled pitches and being eager to hit the high heat that Ogando and Nathan have in spades. You could just chalk it up to Nathan having a bad outing, which he is allowed to do. Mariano Rivera had a terrible outing a few days ago, and there wasn’t any talk of replacing him. He gave up a save against the Rays, who, like the Mariners, aren’t known for their offensive ferocity.
You could even just look at the stats.
Joe Nathan has been really, really unlucky. Despite striking out well over a better per inning (11.25 K/9), while not walking even a single solitary batter, Nathan has a 9.00 ERA. Several factors have conspired to make him look bad. The first is a .364 BABIP, well over his career line of .251. Hitters have been getting fortunate bounces/contact/what have you, and many of the balls that fall in play are landing for hits. The second is an astoundingly low left on base percentage: 27.8%, compared to a much more reasonable career line of 78.7%. Not only has our closer gotten unlucky on the balls hit in play, they all seem to happen one after the other, driving in runs instead of stranding runners. Finally, Nathan’s ground ball percentage is 16.7%, compared to a career line of 37.3%. This could have to do with leaving his pitches up in the zone, which is something he can definitely work on.
With a little luck on his side, Joe Nathan’s ERA would look more like what FIP would predict, something in the range of 3.54. That’s not perfect, but it isn’t atrocious either. With a normal GB%, it would look even better.
Statistical and speculative excuses aside, Nathan is somewhat responsible for both Rangers losses so far this season. Even if his struggles will be short-lived, might it be worth it to move someone who’s been looking better into the closer’s role until he figures it out?
In a word, no. It doesn’t help anyone if Nathan blows the lead in the 7th or 8th innings instead of the 9nth. It isn’t like the Rangers were pulling any punches in the late innings last night. They knew they had to score to give the bullpen a good cushion, and they didn’t. I don’t think they would have done any better had there been any extra “motivation” by being behind earlier. Also, I’m not really sure who would be a better choice for the 9nth. Thanks to the electric pitching show Feliz put on Tuesday, I’m not anxious to move him out of the rotation. Mike Adams and Ogando already have well-defined roles in the 7th and 8th, so I don’t see any real advantage to moving them to the 9nth. Some of our other pitchers are too young, like Robbie Ross, or just not good enough, like Koji Uehara and Mark Lowe. The only potential option is Scott Feldman, who has shown a real knack for critical shutdowns as a reliever. On the other hand, he’s our long relief right now. Moving him to the closer’s role means requiring Ogando to be ready to serve in multiple-inning relief at a moment’s notice, which may or may not affect his 7th-inning work.
Basically, I’m happy with Nathan’s work so far. He’s been getting strikeouts, avoiding walks, and maintaining a good velocity. If he has another meltdown or starts losing his edge over the course of his next few appearances, I might start to get worried. Instead, I think he’ll become better as the season rolls along, both as his luck stabilizes and as he gets sharper with his command.