Happy Birthday Joe
It was one year ago yesterday that the Texas Rangers signed free agent closer Joe Nathan. The then 37 year old veteran All-Star closer solidified the back end of the Rangers bullpen allowing Neftali Feliz to move into the starting rotation. Today is Joe Nathan’s birthday, so what better way to celebrate the birth of Nathan than to eat turkey, dressing, and stuff ourselves full of pie? But, was the Joe Nathan project a success? He was chastised when the season began by the fan base and was thrown to the wolves because of his age, but by the end of the season he had settled in and was the same ol’ steady Joe Twins’s fans had grown to love.
After coming back from Tommy John surgery in 2010, Joe Nathan has slowly regained his dominant stuff he had prior to the surgery. His strikeouts per 9 IP in 2012 was 10.91 which is the highest it has been since his 2009 season where it was 11.67 per 9. The 2012 totals are the second highest strikeout rate he has had since the 2006 season. The strikeouts were there this season for Joe Nathan which is a great sign for Ranger fans, but the growing concern especially by the end of the season were his walks. In 2012 his BB/9 (walks per 9 IP) was 1.82, which is actually his best season statistically since 2002 when was breaking in with the San Francisco Giants. But, when you look at his splits from last year he was throwing more strikes early in the season (0.84 BB/9 in March and April; and 0.82 in May) compared to later in the season (3.46 BB/9 in September and October). Nothing about these numbers are alarming considering Joe Nathan turns 38 years old today, but it does shed some light on the value of Ron Washington resting Joe Nathan during certain moments down the stretch this past season. But, this also leads me to believe that Nathan also needs to only be used in save or high leverage situations only unless he hasn’t been on the mound in several days. A pitcher can’t sit for a week and expect to stay sharp and there are stretches during the big league season where the team will not have a save situation for an extended period of time, so it is understandable why Ron Washington has to use him at times in non-save situations.
The most alarming stat for me was his BABIP (Batting Average on Balls in Play) in 2012. It was the highest in his career (.306) and there isn’t really a close second (.276 in 2007), but this statistic does lean heavily on luck. But, what it does tell me is that when hitters are making contact with his stuff; they are hitting it hard thus increasing their chances of getting a hit. A closer like Joe Nathan who relies on the strikeout will obviously lose effectiveness if the strikeouts start to decline, much like the sinker ball pitcher who can’t get the ball to sink. The highest BABIP among qualified relievers in 2012 was Phil Coke of the Detroit Tigers at a .388 clip, but among qualified closers with at least 20 saves Joe Nathan ranked 17th with his .306 BABIP. Jim Johnson of the Orioles, who led all of baseball in saves, had a .251 BABIP ranking him fourth behind Fernando Rodney (Rays) who led closers with a BABIP of .220 in 2012. BABIP can be a very fickle stat and is not a good indicator of success over a long period of time because so much of the stat is out of the pitcher’s hand. But, the startling jump in Nathan’s BABIP from his previous seasons warrants at least a little concern about his stuff.
As Joe celebrates his 38th birthday on this Thanksgiving Day, there are a lot of reasons to be thankful that he is the closer for the Rangers ballclub next season. His strikeout numbers are still very good, his walk rate was a career best in ‘12 and he has the mentality and grit that you want in your closer. He was a successful closer in 2012 and despite fading down the stretch, the Joe Nathan project was another great move by JD and his staff. Hopefully, father time will be kind to Joe in 2013 and his success will sustain throughout the entire season and deep into the playoffs.
Happy Birthday Joe!
Jeff Johnson is a Staff Writer for ShutDownInning. He can be reached at Jeff.Johnson@ShutDownInning.com or on Twitter @Houstonhog.