Tigers' Nathan fully committed to altering his methods
Lakeland, Fla. – Joe Nathan is undergoing a metamorphosis of sorts, one that possibly started before he was aware of it or ready to accept it.
If his last two outings are an indication, though, he is fully embracing it now.
"It's just continuing to learn and adjust," he said after tossing an easy, three-up-three-down inning against the Yankees Friday. "We preach it all the time. We've got to adjust. We are creatures of habit but we also have to be very good at adjusting.
"When your game adjusts, your arm changes and you have different pitches, you have to adjust with it and not just think you can pitch the same way you used to."
Nathan is no longer a guy who can pump a mid-90s fastball anywhere in the strike zone to get ahead of hitters and then finish them with a slider. He may no longer be a guy who can get by on just two pitches.
He certainly is no longer a guy who can get by with imprecise location.
It's taken a while, most of last year and perhaps even the first couple weeks of spring, but he is fully aware of that now.
"When baseball players are successful, and Joe's been extremely successful in his career, and successful doing things a certain way for years and even a decade, it's tough to tell yourself to change," manager Brad Ausmus said. "I don't think it's a bad thing that Joe is looking at himself and trying to find ways to be better as he matures in his career."
Nathan said the most effective motivator for change is failure – which he had his fill of both last year and in one forgettable outing this spring.
"It's natural to go out and do something that has worked for a period of time until it doesn't work," Nathan said. "The only way to know something's not working is to experience that and battle through it.
"We know, having been in the game for so long, how hard it is to stay in the game for a long time. The guys that can adjust and keep making adjustment and can learn to do it a different way, they stick around."
The adjustments Nathan committed himself to started last year when pitching coach Jeff Jones discovered a flaw in his delivery relating to his arm slot. Once detected and fixed, Nathan pitched much better in the last month and a half of last season.
This year, the adjustments are more in terms of how he needs to attack hitters. It is still imperative that he get ahead of hitters, but he can no longer get away with just pumping center-cut first-pitch fastballs.
"Coming into this year, I've been concentrating on locating strikes, not just throwing strikes," he said. "Before it was just go out and work ahead. Now it's keep the ball down. I am way more effective when I am ahead in the count, but from there I have to keep the location down."
What's helped him achieve that recently is a firm (90 to 92 mph), sinking two-seam fastball. He used it with great effectiveness against the Yankees Friday.
"When my fastball is down and my slider starts out at the same spot, it's a much more effective pitch. And then from there, my curve ball opens up my other pitches."
Other pitches, that's also new to Nathan's vocabulary. He was one of the game's top closers for close to a decade primarily on the strength of his fastball and slider. These days, Nathan is working in a curve ball with more regularity and he's getting comfortable with, of all things, a changeup.
"It's good to be able to throw a curve ball, especially early in the count," Nathan said. "That's been a big pitch for me. Most guys are geared up for the heater, especially late in games, if I can flip a curve ball in there on the first pitch and get ahead, that sets up the at-bat for me.
"I can also possibly mix in that change-up. That's been a big pitch for me lately. I have gotten comfortable with it. Hopefully when we flip it to the regular season I continue to use it. At least it puts it in the back of guys' minds that I do have a fourth or fifth pitch. It makes it harder for them to sit on a certain pitch in a certain situation."
You can look at what Nathan is going through, at age 40, coming off one his worst seasons, two ways – as the final desperate act of a pitcher trying to hang on well past his prime, or as the necessary adaptations every aging player has to make to maintain productivity.
Which one it is won't be known for sure until April or May, after Nathan has applied his new methods in regular season games. It is, regardless, an intriguing case study and one pivotal for the Tigers' fortunes this season.