There's been some chatter in the blogosphere concerning how Ron Gardenhire is using Joe Nathan this year, and the fact that Nathan hasn't pitched more than one inning in any outing. Aaron Gleeman analyzed this earlier this week, but back in mid-April, Nick Nelson suggested a specific alternative that the Twins might employ in GameDay's Dugout Splinters:
So, what I propose is this: bring in Nathan during the eighth or even seventh inning of tight games from time to time, and utilize his ability to prevent runs better than any other pitcher on the roster. If necessary, offset his extra usage by letting Neshek or Crain get a few of those cushy saves where the team has a three-run lead going into the ninth.
So this isn't new ground. But it's probably received a little more attention this week in part because how Nathan was utilized last Monday night. Nathan threw just five pitches in an extra-inning game where it was obvious the Twins risked short-suiting themselves on relievers. I heard it casually criticzed as yet more evidence of Gardenhire's fascination with formulaic bullpen usage.
Well, Gardy might have his formulaic tendencies when it comes to the bullpen, but under-utilizing a closer in an extra-inning game - especially at home - wasn't one I remember. Looking back at last year, there were four instances where Nathan pitched two full innings:
1. Apr 26 home vs. KC - He threw 35 pitches in the 9th and 10th innings to preserve a 0-0 game.
2. June 26 home vs TOR - He threw 33 pitches in the 10th and 11th innings to preserve a 1-1 game
3. July 19 home vs DET - He threw 27 pitches in the 9th and 10th innings to try and preserve a 3-3 game (he didn't and the Twins lost 4-3).
4. Sept 4 home vs CLE - He threw 23 pitches in the 9th and 10th innings to preserve a 5-5 game.
Like I said, Gardy has his formulaic tendencies. It was always at home, because Nathan can't get the save in extra innings at home. (Sigh.) Natha also always covers the first couple extra innings, but Gardy pulls him around that 30 pitch mark.
But that formulaic tendency is what made last week so weird. In a home game, Nathan came into the game and pitched the 10th, and then left after just five pitches?
It kind of happened again three days later. Home game, tie game, Nathan pitches the ninth and then doesn't return for the tenth. That one I wrote off, because he had throw 23 pitches in that ninth inning. But it was still another data point that maybe things had changed.
And then it happened AGAIN last night. Nathan blew the save in the ninth inning on Teahan's inside-the-park homerun. (And by the way, that is NOT the most exciting play in baseball. An inside-the-park homerun is almost always the result of a tremendous fielding gaffe or an injury to an outfielder. For the team that gives it up, it's the most excruciating play in baseball. And for the team that hits it, it's the most guilty play in baseball. You feel like you got away with something.)
But anyway Nathan left the ninth inning with the game tied and having thrown only 10 pitches. And the fact that this was a road game didn't matter, because Nathan was already in the game and wasn't going to get a save. In this situation, just like in the other two, Gardenhire usually let Nathan keep the ball for a second inning. And for the third time in a week, he didn't. This is a change, and the question is whether it is a change in philosophy or whether Nathan is hurt.
Could it be a change in philosophy? I suppose it could be because Nathan is making more money now and the organization or Gardy feels like they need to be super-extra-special careful with him. Or maybe they think he's less effective in outings after he's thown that many pitches. (BTW, a cursory glance at his performance after the games I mentioned above doesn't seem to support that). Or....
Or the Twins and Nathan are tending to something. Maybe it's some soreness or fatigue or something that isn't so bad that Nathan can't pitch but is bad enough that the Twins are being careful about when they use him. It's likely a question worth asking, or at least it might be interesting to ask Gardenhire why his usage pattern for his closer has seemingly changed this year.