While the role of closer is relatively new (considering the long history of baseball that dates back to the era when Kentucky and Tennessee were shooting at each other), it’s still been around for about 45 years.
In all those years, few pitchers as old as Joe Nathan have been called on to close out games for their teams. Only seven relief pitchers, before Nathan this season, have saved as many as 20 games at 39 years or older. Most of them have been the greatest relievers in baseball history: Mariano Rivera (age 39 to 43), Trevor Hoffman (39-41), Dennis Eckersley (40-42), Hoyt Wilhelm (40-42), Doug Jones (40), Jose Mesa (39), and Todd Jones (when he was 39 for the Tigers in 2007).
How did the “old” relievers fare as closers? The greats – Rivera, Eckersley, Wilhelm, and Hoffman, all did a good job, not just gobbling up saves, but posting low ERA’s while they did it. Doug Jones also had a fine season for the Brewers in 1997 at the age of 40. But Todd Jones had a 4.26 ERA even though he saved 38 games for Detroit at the age of 39, and Mesa was a disaster for the Pirates in 2005, posting a 4.76 ERA. Eckersley also had a poor season when he was 42 in the role. Fact is, few teams give such an important job to pitchers who are over the age of 38, unless they are one of the all-time greats.
Is Nathan one of the all-time great closers? The numbers say he has had a very good career, and his numbers against Detroit make him look like Superman, but so far this year it appears that Nathan might not be one of the closers who can continue to be effective after the age of 38. Most relievers peter out in their mid 30s, so Nathan is already on borrowed time. He’s not a fastball pitcher, he has never thrown the ball past hitters. Instead, he relies on the devastating action of his breaking ball, which dives like a Japanese Zero about three feet in front of the plate. This year that pitch has been hanging too often, and that’s why his ERA looks like an airplane model — 704.
As long as the Tigers are in first place and still have some room in the AL Central, I have to believe Nathan will keep his job. But Joe Cool he is not. He’s pitching more like Average Joe. But he’s got a two-year contract, he’s been an All-Star six times (including each of the last two years), and he’s supposed to solidify the closer role that has been a source of frustration for several years. From Rollercoaster Todd Jones, to the strange and never-reliable Fernando Rodney, to headcase Papa Grande, to the underwhelming Joaquin Benoit, the Tigers of recent years have treated their fans to a tightrope-walking mélange of anxiety at the end of games.
Managers will bend over backwards to make sure they avoid the dreaded “closer controversy” and the ensuing tabloid drama. Brad Aumus isn’t going to throw his veteran closer to the wolves by taking the 9th inning away from him. His options: Joba Chamberlain (who was called on Sunday night ostensibly because Joe had tossed too many pitches on Saturday), Al Alburquerque, and Phil Coke (he’s the only other pitcher in the Detroit pen who has actually pitched in the closer role before), all come with “yeah buts” and some are just damned scary. Could you imagine Ausmus waving in Coke to save a game against the White Sox or Twins this week? Twitter would explode.
The Tigers may have some outside help coming when and if Joel Hanrahan is ready. The former All-Star closer is coming back from Tommy John surgery and hasn’t pitched in more than a year. He has good stuff (or he did before undergoing the bionic procedure) and he’s closed games. It would be nice to have him as an option at least. But there’s no timetable on his arrival.
We’re going to see Old Man Joe coming in to close out games, at least for the time being. Even if he loses his job and someone else comes in to serve in the closer role, it won’t be that big a deal. Tigers’ fans are used to it by now.