1/31/2014 4:54 P.M. ET
Nathan's wisdom, experience a boon to Tigers
Veteran closer brings to Detroit wealth of knowledge, desire to keep learning
By Jason Beck / MLB.com
DETROIT -- Joe Nathan and Joba Chamberlain came to the Tigers this offseason from vastly different routes. One is now the active Major League leader in career saves looking to cap his career with a World Series. The other is a former relief phenom looking for a fresh start.
As they compared stories on Miguel Cabrera home runs, however, they sounded like they'd been teammates for years.
"I'm fortunate that I came here," said Nathan, against whom Cabrera is 2-for-12 lifetime with no extra-base hits, "because the last two at-bats he absolutely hit two missiles off of me, and I think the days of me tricking him are over. I'm glad I'm on his side now."
That, of course, brought up the three-homer game Cabrera posted on Nathan's old Texas Ranger teammates last May on a Sunday night in Arlington.
"That ball he hit off of Derek Holland," Nathan recalled, "Holland ducked, and it went over the center-field wall."
To which Chamberlain recalled one of the five home runs Cabrera has hit off Chamberlain's old Yankee teammate, Phil Hughes.
"It was off the chalk," Chamberlain said of the inside pitch at Yankee Stadium last August.
Nathan marveled, "Pulled his hands in? And it was fair?"
"Yeah. It didn't even hook," Chamberlain said.
Nathan could just shake his head.
"Oh my gosh," he said.
This is Joe Nathan, whose first save as a Tiger will put him alone in 10th place on Major League Baseball's all-time saves list with 342. For the resume he has posted as one of the best closers of all time over 13 big league seasons, Nathan is as approachable as a young setup man.
He smirks at the title of baseball's reigning veteran closer now that Mariano Rivera has retired.
"Even with him in the league, I was still a veteran, which means I'm old," Nathan said. "It just means you've been around the league."
It does not, he insists, mean he knows everything. But he knows an awful lot.
For all the value the Tigers might have gained in signing the proven closer to address their bullpen concerns, Nathan's value in the clubhouse might be just as important. The veteran voice Detroit lost in Joaquin Benoit, they gained in abundance with Nathan.
It's not an authoritative voice barking orders or instructions. With Nathan, it's an experienced voice added to the group. He not only gives information, he still seeks it.
"I've always said I'm going to learn as much from a young guy as they're going to learn from me," he said. "The time you stop learning in this game, you're done."
What young relievers can learn from Nathan, however, is valuable. His journey from converted starter in San Francisco to closing force in Minnesota, his comeback from Tommy John surgery at age 35, his transition from hard-throwing fastballer to more of a starter's repertoire, Nathan has a lot to pass along.
He joins a bullpen that includes closer-in-waiting Bruce Rondon, who had to learn to trust his secondary pitches last season after trying to overpowering hitters early in the year, and strikeout specialist Al Alburquerque, who threw sliders on nearly two-thirds of his pitches last season while trying to gain consistent command on his fastball. Detroit has no shortage of high-energy relievers, but they'll be fronted by a closer who channels his emotions through his arm.
"First of all, they did an outstanding job of getting guys over there," Nathan said of the Tigers. "I know that was probably their main area of concern going into the offseason, for them to go out and pick up guys like Joba and bring young guys over and kind of take some of the steam off of some of the young guys they have too. That's a heavy load to throw on somebody coming up and trying to learn the hitters and at the same time getting thrown into the fire. I think those guys are going to do a lot better because they're going to have a lot less pressure having a guy like Joba here to go in there in the seventh, eighth inning, see what he's doing, having a guy like Ian Krol coming over with a great arm and allowing him to learn. …
"I'm going to pay attention to see what these guys like to do, because the game has changed and guys are coming up throwing 100 mph. I want to see what their approach is like and see if they're just trying to blow guys away, but maybe put a head on their shoulder and say, 'Listen, if you can spin a little breaking ball, no one's going to touch you.' You know, there's things to be learned from everybody, and I'm excited. It's always nice when you have new guys around and you can pick brains of new guys and see what they like to do, because you never know."
The same guy who credits an old Double-A pitching coach in the Giants' system for getting his velocity back with extra throwing after surgery also credits Rangers pitching coach Mike Maddux for emphasizing first-pitch strikes with him. Nathan is neither too old nor too proud to learn. He also isn't too preoccupied to help teach if someone asks.
"With [Rivera] being gone, am I that veteran guy? Sure, I'll be that veteran guy," Nathan said. "But it doesn't change anything with what I need to do, and that's just go out and finish games and try to get us to win as many games as we're supposed to, and more importantly get to the World Series."