By now it’s abundantly clear to every sentient Detroit Tigers fan that Brad Ausmus should not be running Joe Nathan out to the mound in the ninth inning of close games.
So why does Ausmus keep doing it and frustrating fans?
Nathan has been consistently terrible all season. Not only has he blown seven of his 40 save chances, he’s been in trouble in many of the 33 saves he has managed to nail down. Nathan’s appeared in 59 games, pitching an inning or less in all of them, and in only 18 of them has he not allowed a base runner. In his other 41 appearances he has averaged more than two base runners per inning.
Through games of Sept. 21, Nathan had a 5.01 ERA. He’d pitched 55.2 innings and thrown an average of 18.5 pitches per inning, an indication of how much he’s struggled. He’d given up 60 hits and 28 walks for a horrible WHIP of 1.58. His strikeout-to-walk ratio of 52-28 is less than two-to-one.
By all these measures he’s been awful: His ERA-plus is 80 (league average is 100). No closer in baseball has a worse WHIP or a worse ERA (except for Grant Balfour and Matt Lindstrom, who both lost their closer jobs earlier this season).
Nathan is much worse than a league-average replacement pitcher. The MLB-average WHIP is 1.28. His WAR is -0.3.
So why is he still finishing games? I guess because the Tigers are paying him $9 million this year to be the closer. But it’s a job he’s proven he can’t do. What nonsense. It’s like a plumber coming to fix a leak in your apartment after his “repair work” has flooded 17 of the other 40 units he’s worked on in your complex.
If Ausmus uses Nathan as the closer in the playoffs, it would be a crime. Even though the rookie skipper has shown some willingness this season to be a little innovative in the use of his bullpen, in sticking to Nathan as closer he is being backwards, obstinate, and shortsighted.
Last night in a crucial 4-3 win over the White Sox, Ausmus seemed to be bending from his stubborn reliance on the Chamberlain/Nathan duo. Starter David Price, pitching as well as he has since coming over in the deadline trade deal, was given the chance to finish out the game. It didn’t work (the Sox got their bats on a few pitches and blooped a few hits in to knot the game), but fans in attendance at Comerica Park seemed to appreciate it. When Ausmus bounced out of the mound after Paul Konerko singled to pull the Sox within a run, they roundly booed the Detroit manager. When he returned to the dugout with Price still on the hill, fans erupted in cheer. Maybe there’s a chance yet that the skipper will figure it out.
It’s not like the Tigers have no alternative. Let’s examine the options.
Joba Chamberlain was pretty good this season—until he wasn’t. He’s now in a sharp decline. Through July 23, his ERA was 2.40 and his WHIP was 1.06; since then, his ERA has been over 6.50 and his WHIP 1.89. Based on his recent performance, he’s a worse option than Nathan.
Al Alburquerque has a WHIP of 1.19 and an ERA of 2.60, and he’s been getting better down the stretch. Since the calendar turned to August, he’s pitched 16 2/3 innings and given up only two earned runs! Most of Al’s success has come against right-handed batters, who are hitting only .192/.283/.273 against him—he’s fairly mediocre, although not terrible, vs. lefties.
The Tigers also have a very good lefty in the bullpen, Blaine Hardy, who has quietly compiled eye-popping numbers in 37 innings of work (2.17 ERA, 1.29 WHIP). He does give up too many walks to righties, but both lefties and righties are slugging well under .300 against him. And lefties are hitting .190 against him. He’s been excellent.
There’s nothing wrong with Joakim Soria either, now that he’s healthy again. He has an ERA of 3.48 and a WHIP of 1.06 this season. Soria has been average against lefties this season (.702 OPS) but very tough on righties, who have hit a mere .188/.229/.313 against him.
Based on his four outings since coming back from a month-long injury, Soria appears to be OK. And he’s proven before that he can close games.
Phil Coke is putrid. True, he has improved to become merely extremely mediocre in recent weeks. But fans should never have to witness him pitching in a pressure situation in the post-season ever again.
With the expected return of Anibal Sanchez, the Tigers have another bullpen weapon. It would be foolish to expect Sanchez to give the Tigers enough innings coming off his long injury to be used as a starter. And you only need four starters in the postseason anyway. With his ability to get lefties out (.561 OPS against this year) even better than righties (.655 OPS), he could pitch multiple innings out of the pen. He could be the savior the Tigers need.
Here’s how I would manage the bullpen in the postseason: Use Sanchez to pitch one, two or more innings as needed. Use Alburquerque against righties and Hardy against lefties. If you absolutely must use a closer, use Soria.
Use your best four relievers (Sanchez, Soria, AlAl, and Hardy) in high-pressure situations or in good match-ups in any inning. If you don’t stifle rallies in the sixth, seventh, or eighth, there won’t be a game to save in the ninth. Don’t keep using Joba to pitch the eighth inning as the designated setup man. Show some flexibility and throw out the ridiculous, illogical “this guy has to pitch this inning” playbook.
Above all, never let Nathan or Coke toe the rubber when the game is on the line.