Tigers notes: Nathan still effective without velocity

Joe Nathan hasn't allowed any runs in six innings over six games.

Gene J. Puskar/AP

LAKELAND, Fla. — There isn’t a pitcher in spring training who isn’t throwing a few miles per hour under what they will be reaching in the regular season. It takes time for arms to get loose and mechanics to fall into place to allow for maximum heat.

However, new Detroit Tigers closer Joe Nathan feels a bit apprehensive about his top velocity being in the 88 to 90 mph range because it’s so slow to ramp up.

"I don’t feel like I’m not getting out there and getting after it," Nathan, 39, said. "Then something just clicks. Hopefully, it does again this year.

"I’m always waiting for that one year where it just doesn’t come back and I go out there with 88-91, and hopefully it’s enough. But, hopefully, that’s not the case."

He said the velocity generally returns about the time of Opening Day, and that makes sense.

"In the spring," Nathan said, "I just can’t get to this level of adrenaline."

And that’s why Tigers manager Brad Ausmus isn’t concerned in the least.

"I think that’s pretty typical for veteran guys," Nathan said. "There is very little adrenaline. And he hit 91 yesterday."

Nathan said he generally throws a 93-93 mph and tops out at 95. He relies on keeping hitters off balance rather than blowing them away. Nathan has five effective pitches with a curve, slider, changeup, four-seam fastball and a sinking two-seam fastball. Most relievers are lucky to have even three effective pitchers.

His approach has resulted in 341 career saves, making him the leader among all active pitchers and tying him for 10th all-time with Hall of Famer Rollie Fingers.

Nathan was a starter for the San Francisco Giants in 1999 and 2000, but switched to relief in 2003, not long after returning from shoulder surgery. Still, he wasn’t aware of his low velocity in spring training until pitching for the Minnesota Twins, who acquired him along with pitchers Francisco Liriano and Boof Bonser for catcher A.J. Pierzynski after the 2003 season.

The Twins questioned his spring training velocity, and so Nathan called the Giants to see if they had charted his fastball in springs. They had, and assured him he’d always thrown in the 88-90 range in exhibitions.

But velocity doesn’t seem to matter in terms of Nathan’s effectiveness. He pitched another shutout inning Thursday against the Miami Marlins, and still hasn’t allowed any runs in six innings over six games. Nathan has allowed two hits (.100 opponent batting average), one walk and struck out three.

Three outs is three outs. I don’t care if I’m throwing 62.

Joe Nathan

"But normally I have about a 12.00 ERA at this point," Nathan said.

Fine-tuning his mechanics and pitch command are what he focuses on in spring training. "To me, the most important thing is to be free and easy," Nathan said.

Still, he admitted to always having the fear of his velocity not returning in the back of his mind.

"We’ll find out," said Nathan. "But three outs is three outs. I don’t care if I’m throwing 62."

Asked if Iglesias was at the point where he would need to begin the season on the disabled list, Ausmus said, "He’s not there yet, but it’s getting more and more tenuous."

Ausmus said an extra shortstop could be carried as a result.

Pitcher Justin Miller and first baseman Jordan Lennerton also were optioned to Toledo, while third baseman Francisco Martinez was optioned to Erie.

"(Fields) really goes after the ball well," Ausmus said. "He’s gliding and covering a lot of ground. Ken Griffey Jr. was like that in his prime. He just needs to get at-bats, get experience. He had some good at-bats here. I think he can play center field here, and he’s still learning the position. He played shortstop in high school (University of Detroit Jesuit). He has a chance to be a very good center fielder."

Robertson, 36, has not played in the majors since 2010 with the Marlins and Phillies. He’s making a comeback as a reliever. Robertson was 13-13 with a 3.84 ERA for the 2006 Tigers.