The Prize of Surprise: Joe Nathan

*This is another installment of “The Prize of Surprise”, in which the SDI Staff will be giving you our players to watch this year. These are the players we think can make a significant contribution to the team, perhaps to the surprise of many.

 
In the conversation of great closers over the last 10 years of Major League Baseball, the dialogue typically results in a discussion of Mariano Rivera…and everyone else. Lost in the mix with “everyone else” is Joe Nathan, who quietly strung together six straight seasons of All-Star caliber work as the Twins’ closer in Minnesota. The stage is not the same as New York, but compare the numbers for these two premier closers from 2004 – 2009:

Mariano Rivera: 1.91 ERA, 243 Saves, 440.1 IP, 0.988 WHIP, 8.67 K/9, 5.37 K/BB

Joe Nathan: 1.87 ERA, 246 Saves, 418.2 IP, 0.953 WHIP, 11.14 K/9, 4.32 K/BB

Nathan stacks up, or beats Rivera in almost every category over that stretch of time. He has a slightly worse walk rate, but on the other hand the strikeout rate is significantly better.

With these kinds of numbers, you may wonder why there was not more exuberance and delight upon the announcement of the Rangers signing Nathan to a 2 year, $14.5 million deal this offseason. You also may already know the answer. First, Nathan underwent Tommy John surgery (perhaps the most serious of surgeries for a pitcher) in 2010 and missed the entire season. He came back in 2011, but posted a bloated 4.84 ERA and 1.164 WHIP with only a 3.07 K/BB rate. Additionally, Nathan is now 37 years old, and an aging pitcher coming off of a serious surgery does not sound like an exciting investment for 2 years and $14.5 million.

Despite the availability of skepticism regarding his outlook, Nathan is my pick to be one of the biggest impacts to the 2012 Texas Rangers coming out of Spring Training. The process for Tommy John surgery is typically a one-year period over which the player is not allowed to play in baseball games again. However, that does not mean that the player will be able to return to peak form the following year; the return to form is typically a more gradual process. As Nathan said himself, the 18-month point is the key time in the Tommy John recovery process, and that is when he began to hit his stride.

Nathan had a terrible first half in 2011. For the months of April through June, he logged a 7.36 ERA, 1.64 WHIP, and a paltry 1.89 K/BB. However, he turned things around in the month of July (in which he had a 0.79 ERA). Overall he finished the second half of the season with a 3.32 ERA, 0.996 WHIP, and a 5.2 K/BB. While his fastball was still lagging slightly from where it used to be, Nathan adapted, and implemented improved off-speed pitches to make up the difference. In other words, he is pitching smarter, just like aging pitchers need to learn how to do as velocity declines.

Beyond just the numbers, it is clear that the Rangers front office felt that Nathan regained his delivery, velocity, and movement. And as we say on Shutdown Inning, we trust Jon Daniels. If JD signed a man off the street we would believe he can contribute to the Rangers, so I have infinite more confidence in what Nathan can bring to this team.

In the closer role for the Rangers in 2011, Neftali Feliz posted a 2.74 ERA, 1.155 WHIP, and 1.80 K/BB. Based on Nathan’s track record of success, and strong finish to the 2011 season, I don’t foresee the Rangers suffering a drop-off in production from the closer role. Personally, I feel an even greater sense of confidence heading into this year than I did last year. Give me the experienced veteran with a full arsenal of pitches as my closer over the excitable youth with a mostly 1-pitch toolbox any day. It is still unknown exactly what Feliz’s mental state was after giving up the game-tying triple to David Freese in game 6 of the 2011 World Series, but there have been several reports that he was too shaken up to return to the game. With Nathan as the closer, the Rangers pitching staff, team, and fans can have renewed confidence in the mentality of the game’s anchor.

*As a bonus, this gives Feliz the freedom to return to working as a starting pitcher, which will make him a better pitcher (because of needing to develop his secondary and tertiary pitches), whether he sticks in the rotation or eventually returns to the bullpen.

In my post last week about the Rangers being hungry, I mentioned that Nathan has never won a World Series, despite pitching in 8 postseason games. That was one of the main reasons the Rangers were excited to sign him, and that he favored signing with the Rangers. He brings a veteran presence to this club, but also a very motivated perspective. And as Richard Durrett reported last week, Nathan was one of only two or three players to speak up in the Rangers first team meeting of the year. I am very pleased to hear that he is embracing his role as one of the leaders in the already strong Rangers clubhouse.

Mariano Rivera is certainly the greatest closer in our generation, if not the greatest of all time, and guys like Papelbon, Valverde, Kimbrel, or Bell may be more invigorating to watch. But in this writer’s opinion, don’t be surprised if Nathan finishes 2012 as one of the best closers in baseball once again, and as a candidate for comeback player of the year.

And you may just be finding your adrenaline coursing through your veins, and your confidence swelling every time you hear the kick beat of a big hair rock band named Steel Dragon, as Joe Nathan enters the game and you get ready to Stand Up and Shout.

Peter Ellwood is a Staff Writer for Shutdown Inning. You can email him at Peter.Ellwood@shutdowninning.com or reach him on Twitter @Peter_Ellwood

Peter Ellwood

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