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Former Twins Cooperstown Case: Joe Nathan


Joe Nathan gets his first shot at the Hall of Fame this season. His case for Cooperstown might be stronger than you think, and here is why…

The San Francisco Giants drafted Joe Nathan in 1995 from State University of New York at Stony Brook. He was only the second player ever taken from his school, and he was initially drafted as a shortstop. Shoulder surgery forced him to miss the entire 1996 season, and it pushed him to the mound. He spent his first three professional seasons as a starter in the Giants organization, but he struggled with ERAs over 6.00 at Double-A and over 5.50 at Triple-A. It was hardly the perfect start to a Hall of Fame resume. 

Even with his struggles, the Giants pushed him to the big leagues in 1999. He’d bounce between the majors and the minors for multiple seasons. In his first three big-league seasons, he posted a 4.61 ERA and a 1.51 WHIP in 187 1/3 innings. Nathan wasn’t successful as a starter, so the Giants moved him to the bullpen at age-28. 

Entering the 2003 season, Baseball Prospectus said, “Nathan continued his comeback from shoulder surgery in 2000, with a year that was impressive only relative to the year before. He was never a great prospect, even before the shoulder woes, but he could be a serviceable innings-eater in middle relief.” During the 2003 season, he made 78 relief appearances and posted a 2.96 ERA with a 1.06 WHIP and 83 strikeouts in 79 innings. It was a marked improvement, and the Minnesota Twins took notice. 

The Twins acquired Nathan In one of the most famous trades in team history as he was included with Francisco Liriano and Boof Bonser for A.J. Pierzynski. Pierzynski was an All-Star catcher in the prime of his career with multiple years of team control. Nathan, Liriano, and Bonser all had questions surrounding their injury history and previous performance, so it wasn’t initially as lopsided of a trade as it looks in retrospect.

Following the trade, Nathan immediately became one of baseball’s best closers. He was a six-time All-Star, and he twice finished in the top-five of the AL Cy Young Award voting. He topped the 30-save mark in nine seasons, including accumulating 40 or more saves in four seasons. Among pitchers with at least 900 innings pitched, only Billy Wagner and Nolan Ryan have a lower hits per nine innings ratio. 

Unfortunately for Nathan, relief pitchers are significantly underrepresented in Cooperstown. The current HOF relievers are Dennis Eckersley, Mariano Rivera, Hoyt Wilhelm, Rich Gossage, Lee Smith, Bruce Sutter, Trevor Hoffman, and Rollie Fingers. Billy Wagner is one player currently on the ballot that might be paving the way for Nathan to be enshrined. Last year, Wagner received 46.4% of the vote, up from the 10.5% he received back in 2017, his first year on the ballot. 

Nathan compares well to Wagner and other relievers already elected to the Hall. According to JAWS, he ranks better than Sutter, Wagner, and Hoffman. FanGraphs writer and Hall of Fame expert Jay Jaffe developed the JAWS system, but he prefers a different method for measuring relievers. Nathan ranks in the top-7 all-time relief pitchers using a hybrid average of WAR, WPA, and situational or context-neutral wins (WPA/LI).

Before his age-29 season, Nathan had failed as a shortstop and a starting pitcher. From that point forward, he was one of the most dominant relief pitchers in baseball history. His resume alone should put him into the Cooperstown conversation. 

Nathan will have an uphill climb to enshrinement, but relievers should have a better chance in the years ahead. Do you think he has a strong enough case for Cooperstown? Leave a COMMENT and start the discussion. 

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I do not think he will make it.  He was great for a few years, one of the best against every team but the Yankees.  He may get in if the voters start adopting the metrics and not the counting stats, and with shift of starters only going average of 6 innings, it puts more importance on pen pitchers. If he does get in on the votes it will be one of his last years, but more likely it would be on vet committee vote. 

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I have a terrible time thinking of RP in the HOF.  It is such a hybrid position, but the fact that we are now doing bullpen games and relying more on RP that SP means that they have a new status and that might be the factor that puts him in the hall.  

It does make me wonder about RP that were in the golden era like Don McMahon who had a wonderful career outlined here The Case for Don MaMahon  

Here is a bleacher report summary the ten best RP of the 1960s  

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Agreed, Wagner is ahead of him. And considering he pitched in Houston, Philadelphia, NY, Boston and Atlanta, I think his national prominence is way ahead of Nathan's. Those late career injuries did him in. Another half season and Nathan would have 400 saves. Another season and a half and he's probably top 5 in career saves.

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If Wagner gets in, Nathan should. Nathan was easily the second best closer of his era, and the best closer was the first unanimous HOF selection in history. I don't think he gets voted in by the writers though. Like Johan Santana, he'll get in eventually but will be a veteran's committee selection. 

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I really like Joe Nathan, but the gap between Nathan and Rivera is cavernous. A quick glance down the bWAR lists:

  • Dennis Eckersly (HoF) = 62.2
  • Mariano Rivera (HoF) = 56.3
  • Rich Gossage (HoF) = 41.6
  • Lee Smith (HoF) = 29.3
  • Trevor Hoffman (HoF) = 28.1
  • Billy Wagner = 27.8 (2019. 16.7%, 31.7%, 46.4%)
  • Joe Nathan = 26.7 (2022)
  • Francisco Rodriguez = 24.1 (2023)
  • John Franco = 23.6
  • Jonathan Papelbon = 23.3 (2022)
  • Craig Kimbrel = 21.9 (still active)
  • Rick Aguilera = 20.7
  • Jeff Reardon = 19.0
  • Troy Percival = 17.0

I think Nathan has an outside shot at the Hall of Fame. He wasn't good in the post season, blowing a couple games with an 8.10 ERA in just 10 appearances with 10.0 innings pitched. I don't think that's going to be working well for him. He was definitely right there with Mariano Rivera as #1A and #1B from 2004-2009 and I think Nathan gets in if he didn't go down with TJ in 2010. Now, he's really pushing the limits. There are a lot of closers who are around him in saves and WAR who fell off the list fast.

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Nathan has a good case, but it's tough on relievers, and Nathan has the extra whammy of overlapping with Rivera. I think Jaffe is doing a good job finding some good metrics to help evaluate relievers to separate the wheat from the chaff, though and it may help him out a little. I hope he gets enough to stick on the ballot and give people time to consider his case. I don't think he makes it any time soon.

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Joe was great, but I think he is just short, sadly. It's tough for a RP to make it into the HOF. There seem to be three types enshrined: 1) those that redefined what a reliever does, 2) those that have held the saves record or 3) those that had signature moments in the playoffs. Joe does not comfortably fit in any of those spots. Maybe after some the coming decade plus, voters will place more value on relievers. For now though, he think he's on the outside looking in. Too bad. He was underappreciated outside MN. 

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23 minutes ago, awmonahan said:

Joe was great, but I think he is just short, sadly. It's tough for a RP to make it into the HOF. There seem to be three types enshrined: 1) those that redefined what a reliever does, 2) those that have held the saves record or 3) those that had signature moments in the playoffs. Joe does not comfortably fit in any of those spots. Maybe after some the coming decade plus, voters will place more value on relievers. For now though, he think he's on the outside looking in. Too bad. He was underappreciated outside MN. 

Great first post, and I tend to agree that he's on the outside looking in.  

Welcome to Twins Daily!

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Closers have it tougher than designated hitters. Partly because they often split their careers as just being a bullpen arm, failed starter, or don't have the length of duty. As well as what defines a real save comapred to, say, a cheap save.

 

That said, Joe was the runner-up to being the best of his decade. What would've happened had he played for a constantly competitive team? Again, a short of many a pitcher (Bert Blyleven ahd that issue). Your stats suffer if you are the only dominant player on the team. You can't win, you can't save, if the team doesn't put you in a position to do so.

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