For an organization that has become something of a model for how Major League Baseball rosters should be compiled, the Texas Rangers signing of Joe Nathan to a two year contract worth $14.75 million this off season was a bit curious. While the justification for the deal is obvious – the team needed a reliever to replace Neftali Feliz as he joined the starting rotation – the terms, heavily dictated by the timing, seemed unnecessary.
Nathan’s signing came a day before his 37th birthday, and eight days after Jonathan Papelbon inked his four year $50 million deal with the Philadelphia Phillies. He had missed the entirety of the 2010 season and failed to show anything more than brief glimpses in 2011 of the pitcher he once was.
A month later, the New York Mets signed Frank Francisco, a pitcher five years younger who has made at least 50 appearances in each of the last five seasons, to a similar two year contract worth $12 million. Francisco’s numbers weren’t nearly as good as Nathan’s were in his prime, but at this stage in their careers, the new Mets closer’s fastball had better velocity and more movement on his curve ball.
A month after that, the Cincinnati Reds signed Ryan Madson to an incredibly team friendly one year deal worth $8.5 million. In fact, almost every contract with a reliever that was signed after Nathan landed his deal with the Rangers made their agreement look more ridiculous. Better bullpen options were signing contracts for less money and fewer years.
In terms of the bottom line, the Rangers had clearly acted too quickly to fill one of their rare needs, but even outside of an off field cost analysis, there are questions surrounding what can be expected from Nathan on the field. We saw potential for the downside of their misstep last night.
What we saw from Nathan last night might be misinterpreted as a strange lack of confidence in his four seam fastball, which given the decrease in its velocity since his heyday is somewhat expected. However, not using it becomes less understandable when we see how effective it was with the batters Nathan had success against last night.
The Texas closer faced seven batters, allowing three runs off of four hits. His command was good enough to avoid walking anyone, but he still got hit hard by a lineup not exactly known for its line drive prowess.
If we look through the match ups he faced, we see that the four line drives hit against him came off of a two seam fastball, a curve ball and two sliders. Of the four hits, only one of the batters saw a four seam fastball. With the strangest pitch sequencing of the night coming against John Jaso.
Five curve balls in a row? Really? You’re going to throw five curve balls in a row to a Major League batter who isn’t Adam Lind or Pedro Cerrano?
You might suggest that a curve ball would be the last thing a batter would expect after seeing back-to-back-to-back-to-back hooks, but after seeing it that many times in a row coming out of the pitcher’s hand, you wouldn’t have to be expecting it to recognize it.
Making matters even more difficult to understand is that this strange at bat was sandwiched by two stirke outs, to both a right handed and left handed batter in which Nathan threw nothing but four seamers to get ahead in the count and then induced a whiff on a slider. Both times.
Perhaps most hilarious is that this strange appearance resulted in a negative FIP for Nathan.
This is what I don’t understand at all though, eight of the nine four seam fastballs that he threw came against the three outs that he earned. It was obviously working for him both in terms of inducing swings and misses as well as setting up his slider to induce swings and misses.
Was he using a two seamer and breaking pitches in an attempt to create poor contact? I suppose that would be understandable given the prowess of the Rangers infield defense, but that still doesn’t explain the Jaso at bat at all.
Looking at last night’s melt down might inspire Texas fans to question Nathan’s place on the team and in the bullpen, and while there are several reasons to do so, his performance against the Mariners isn’t one of them.
Whether Nathan was being asked to do something he wasn’t comfortable doing, or he was trying out a different approach, something was happening that isn’t easily explained, and given the success he had with a fastball and slider combination, I’d guess the “something happening” was not his idea at all.