Just as quickly as Prince Fielder packed his emotional baggage and left Detroit, Joe Nathan brought his own to the Motor City. Fielder disenfranchised himself with media and fans alike after poor postseason performances, and repeated dismissals of fan criticism. He appeared completely incapable of dealing with questions regarding his inability to perform down the stretch and beyond, and it cost him his reputation in Detroit.
That was 2013.
Enter Joe Nathan, the veteran (and aged) closer. With 341 career saves and a lifetime ERA of 2.88 — what could go wrong?
What could go wrong in baseball eventually goes wrong. Pitchers age, lose velocity, the ability to locate pitches, and some might even say they lose their ‘fire.’ The ‘fire’ is not something Nathan has had to worry about, but the command, he has.
Nathan’s WHIP of 1.5, 5.20 ERA and six blown saves have left him having to deal with angry fans, and he’s not handling it well at all.
The problems started in May when Nathan threw teammate Nick Castellanos under the bus after he booted what seemed to be a routine ground ball.
“The big out there was getting Jaso, I think,
“You get him and it changes everything. It changes how your approach is against Donaldson. It changes how you can pitch to him. It gives me a chance to play with him a little bit. When I guess we didn’t get Jaso, it puts you in a tough spot. First and third. Real good hitter at the plate. It kind of forces me to go after one of the better hitters in the lineup. Like I said, Jaso was the out that we thought we had, but unfortunately it didn’t happen.”
Nathan seemed to dismiss the fact that his job is to get hitters out, regardless of the situation.
By that point, Nathan had already struggled as the Tigers new closer, and his comments about the rookie third baseman didn’t help his image in Detroit. Tigers fans have endured years of shaky closers: Todd Jones, Jose Valverde, and now Nathan. The difference is, Valverde and Jones at least exhibited some amount of accountability after poor outings. Nathan has yet to show any accountability for his disastrous year.
And then the chin-flick. The Tigers hosted the Pirates last Wednesday in the second half of a home-and-home interleague series. Nathan entered in the ninth with the Tigers up 8-4. He proceeded to walk the first two batters, and Tigers fans, clearly frustrated with his season, rained boos onto the field. Nathan worked his way out of the inning but immediately following the win he made two clear chin-flicks to the crowd. The gesture might have been warranted if he hadn’t blown six saves, thrown Castellanos under the bus, and shown no remorse for his struggles throughout the season.
Then came the apology, which seemed more like an apology to his two children than to the fans:
“I think both sides were frustrated … I was frustrated. Fans obviously were frustrated. I think for myself, I apologize for that. I have two kids and I need to be a better example for them.”
It didn’t end there. In a postgame interview last week, Nathan opened up about his struggles, but again blamed the fans for being too hard on him (and Phil Coke). He began a lengthy defense by making a stark proclamation about Detroit baseball fans:
“I think a lot of it is lack of knowledge,
“I think they got frustrated from the first couple months of how I pitched – rightfully so – but the thing is for me the last couple months recently, things have gone well. I’ve pitched well, and not just myself but other pitchers coming out of the pen, just to name one Phil Coke, who threw the ball outstanding.”
Perhaps Nathan’s comment about fans’ “lack of knowledge” is in regards to his salary ($9.5M). If everyone in the stadium knew how much he made to be the Tigers’ closer, there’s a strong chance more of them would be booing.
The Tigers have experienced more than just closer problems during the 2014 season, but Nathan’s distance from the fans has created a culture of animosity not often seen in Detroit. Prince Fielder’s departure marked the end of an ugly relationship, and time will tell whether Nathan’s struggles and his inability to deal with fan criticism will culminate in a break similar to the one the Tigers organization had with Fielder.
For the time being, Nathan’s task is to regain his command.
Focusing on this task would be much easier if he didn’t feed into fan frustration.