NEW YORK -- Texas Rangers closer Joe Nathan is 38 years old, or roughly the time when hard-throwing closers are slowing down or already retired.
But Nathan, so far this season, is blowing away his younger competitors. His ERA+ of 271 is better than any other full-time closer this season. His Tommy John surgery from 2010 is now a memory, while his current season would fit comfortably within the six dominant campaigns he posted as Minnesota Twins closer from 2004-2009.
He's doing some things a bit differently, not throwing as hard as he did. But mostly, he's enjoying himself more than before, because he knows how quickly it can all go away.
"What I like is, I'm able to almost relax more on the mound, and enjoy it," Nathan said on Thursday afternoon in front of his locker at Yankee Stadium. "Early on, I don't want to say there's more pressure, because there's always pressure out there, but I think I've gotten to a point where I can enjoy myself while I'm going through it, and it's not all about, let me get some outs right now. I'm enjoying myself pitching. So it's fun."
He is, though, getting plenty of outs. Nathan's ERA in 2011, his first season back from the surgery that claimed his entire 2010 campaign, was 4.84. Last season, he made the All-Star team after signing with the Rangers, saving 37 games and posting a 2.80 ERA. This season, he's down to a 1.62 ERA with 26 saves already.
Interestingly, though, he's getting there without the velocity that stayed pretty constant right through 2012. From 2004-2009, his average fastball velocity hovered between 93.5 and 94.8 mph. His slider checked in between 87 and 88.9 mph. And the effect on hitters was unquestionable, with four seasons with ERAs below 2, another at 2.10, and the worst season of the bunch a still excellent 2.70.
Back in 2009, Nathan threw his four-seam fastball about half the time, his two-seamer less than 10 percent. So far in 2013, he's throwing the four-seamer less than 36 percent of the time, while roughly one in six of his pitches is the sinking fastball. And in a change that has come following the surgery, he's employing his curveball regularly, nearly 12 percent of the time, and at a velocity of less than 80 mph.
Nathan said that's at least partially in response to the 2013 drop in velocity, even though he'd been featuring that pitch since returning in 2011. He'd been doing so, just in case.
"It's been a pitch that I can throw for strikes," Nathan said. "It's been a pitch I can use late, I can use early, to get back into a count. Obviously, locating fastballs is always going to be most important, but having that pitch, and being able to throw it anytime, makes my fastball better. If it's a pitch that you can flip over at any time, it allows you, sometimes, to get away with a 92-93 located fastball, as opposed to if a guy knows you're bringing that, it's got to be perfect."
Still, Nathan's strategy varies by day. On Wednesday night against the Yankees, there was no sign of the curveball, or even the two-seam fastball. He brought the vintage Nathan repertoire, eight four-seamers and a slider.
"If we can go out and throw a bunch of fastballs, and use that, for sure [we will]," Nathan said. "Last night was one of those situations, three-run lead, we used the fastball a lot. We went after them. We made them swing the bat, that was our strategy last night."
It's this kind of flexibility that has earned Nathan the respect of his manager, Ron Washington.
"Knowledge, know-how," said Washington, explaining Nathan's renaissance during a session with reporters on Thursday morning. "He's got, three hundred and, correct me --" he asked for help, and was told Nathan had 324 saves following Wednesday night. "He knows how to get outs. I always go back to Frank Tanana, when you talk about a drop in velocity. Frank Tanana went from throwing 95 to throwing 81, 82. And still won. Knowledge. Knows how to pitch. Knows how to get outs. That's what it's all about, especially when you're trying to get three."
But the Rangers are quite aware that in their closer, they have a weapon, but also a 38-year-old with a Tommy John surgery in his profile. Washington, unprompted, pointed out that the return of Joakim Soria, expected shortly, could help him to "back off of Joe sometimes." If they want to keep Nathan dominant and healthy for ninth innings that matter down the stretch, some caution appears to be warranted.
"We check on our guys every day," Rangers pitching coach Mike Maddux said as we chatted in the dugout Thursday morning. "But the game kind of dictates when you're gonna pitch. And he's been busy lately. But no matter what his age is, you really don't want to overwork everybody. But we check with him every day, and he assures me, he assures us, he's good to go.
"But there's been times we've given him days off, he didn't want to. But sometimes you've got to do what's best for him and best for the ballclub."
Washington cited Nathan's work ethic as a reason he's been not only among the most effective closers this season, but also among the most prolific, with 35 games already pitched.
"Yes, I'd like to have some games where I didn't have to close it down," Washington said. "But it just hasn't been like that. It just hasn't been like that. There was a period there early, when he was down there six, seven days without pitching. And he was complaining about that, not finding him some time to get him in the game. So now the game keeps asking him to get in it."
So Nathan is going to keep on pitching, and pitching often, for the contending Rangers. Nathan's own explanation for how he's succeeding is a pretty straightforward one.
"Feeling healthy, and consistency," Nathan said. "I've been pretty consistent with location. I think my mechanics have been staying pretty sound. Arm angle, usually when your arm angle is all over the place, you're going to be more inconsistent, so I think my arm slot has stayed for the most part, pretty consistent. For the most part, I do have an idea where the ball is going."
Nathan is also mixing his slider on both the inside and outer part of the plate, giving him better location for a pitch that's always been a weapon for him.
"I just think I wasn't doing it because I didn't need to," Nathan said. "I would just reach back for the mid-90s, and a pitch that was very successful was the back-foot slider that I always threw. I just didn't feel the need to adjust until I needed to. Now that I have a good feel for it, let's move it, and keep them guessing."
It's that kind of intelligent approach that led Maddux to observe: "He's got pitchability. He's been around a long time. He's been a top-shelf reliever, one of the best closers in the game. One of the better closers in the history of the game. And that's not by accident, that's not just because [he] can rely on [his] stuff. It's because he can pitch."