White Sox have company with closer uncertainty

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Detroit Tigers mulling late-inning changes as Joe Nathan continues to struggle

As a baseball fan -- and as a human being, for that matter -- it's good to keep in mind that most of your problems aren't unique.

Take Ronald Belisario, for instance. He's alternated saves with blown saves since being awarded the closer role, which jeopardized his tenuous grip on the role. Robin Ventura made the right call in sticking with him, though. Chasing the hot hand didn't make sense with a contact-oriented group of relievers, and Belisario paid for poor decisions of others in the blown save against Cleveland. The ball would have to start bouncing his way soon enough.

It worked out that way on Tuesday. Belisario picked up an easy 1-2-3 save on three 4-3 putouts. It's not always going to be that easy -- the blown save against the Yankees showed what grounders can accomplish -- but at least the results reflect the logic behind the move.

It's hard to say the same thing about the Tigers right now when it comes to their closer. Answers are harder to come by.

Before Belisario recorded his save on Tuesday, Joe Nathan took another one on the chin for Detroit. He entered a scoreless game against the Blue Jays and promptly doused the situation in gasoline. By the time the Tigers recorded the third out, Nathan had four runs charged to his account over one-third of an inning. The Tigers lost 5-3, their 10th defeat over their last 14 games.

Entering the third month of a two-year, $20 million contract, Nathan isn't giving Detroit the start Dave Dombrowski envisioned when he traded Doug Fister to open up payroll for the bullpen.

W-L ERA SV-OPP G IP H HR BB K FIP
Nathan 2-2 6.86 13-17 23 21 20 4 11 20 5.21

Brad Ausmus has remained steadfast in his support of Nathan up until this most recent debacle, but he might be wavering now:

Tigers manager Brad Ausmus was asked if he'd stay with Nathan as his closer, and he didn't exactly provide a ringing endorsement.

"I certainly wouldn't answer that right now," Ausmus said. "I would talk to Joe before I made that public knowledge."

When asked if there was a possibility Nathan could be shelved as the closer, Ausmus said, "I didn't say that. Somebody asked me if there was (a chance). I never said anything. I just said I wouldn't make it public before I talked to anybody."

And Nathan's response suggested frustration is starting to boil over. There's this:

When asked about the fan response, Nathan said, "Fortunately, I don't give a s*** about that. They can boo me all they want."

And this:

He didn’t get full-count call he wanted on the first batter he faced, Anthony Gose, after getting ahead of Gose 0-2.

He didn’t get the call on a tag at third he thought he might get, but a review proved the umpires correct by ruling that Jose Reyes beat the tag.

Nathan also didn’t get the call on an appeal at first.

By that time, he said afterward he was thinking, "What is going on right now? Do I need to go to church more? Say some more prayers? I don’t know.

"Every call was borderline, but it wasn’t anything anyone had against me. They were borderline calls that didn’t go my way."

Bad luck might have a lot to do with Nathan's problems, but there are signs that Nathan needs good fortune more than ever before. Neil Greenberg at WashingtonPost.com pointed to Nathan's deteriorating velocity and command among a few reasons why he may not be long for ninth innings.

Despite their recent problems, the Tigers still hold a four-game lead at 31-23. They still have that rotation, and they've won the division while breaking up with and coming back to Jose Valverde. It's easy to blow their problems with one inning out of proportion.

Still, those problems offer a little perspective for the puzzle the Sox face with their own late-inning situations. Belisario's track record and vulnerability to batted balls make him a less-than-ideal candidate for the highest-leverage situations. He'll probably be overextended when it comes to a string of one-run save situations.

Then again, the same could be said for Addison Reed. After a turbulent start, Reed has calmed down when it comes to converting saves (15 of 17). Still, while Belisario worked a clean inning to record a save, Reed gave up a solo homer while protecting his own three-run lead on Tuesday.

Reed has given up seven homers over his 26⅓ innings in Arizona, and his tendency to allow fly balls was a big reason the Sox sought to sell high-ish on him (though Matt Davidson's start suggests the Diamondbacks did the same on their end).

If you extrapolate Reed's home run rate to the White Sox bullpen's innings total, you can see why he didn't fit in Rick Hahn's plans:

  • White Sox: 11 homers over 194⅓ innings
  • Reed (proj.): 51 homers over 194⅓ innings

(In Reed's defense, you could say that with just four walks on the season, he'd be too good for the Sox.)

This isn't to say Belisario is in the class of a Nathan or Reed, but he shouldn't be held to the same standard. Nathan and Reed were No. 1 choices with bullets. Belisario came to spring training anywhere from Plan C to Plan E, but with Matt Lindstrom and Nate Jones on the shelf, he's the best of what's left. If the Sox make plays behind him, his success rate might not be that much different from many established closers by the end of the season.

All he can do is play to his strengths. As long as he throws strikes and gets grounders, he's doing his job. He might not be the best solution, but that doesn't make him a problem. Using significant resources to pay for a proven closer who delivers troublesome peripherals and worse results .. that's what a problem looks like.

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