Hall of Fame players are not one-size fits all and, for many, the path to the Hall includes excellence over a long period of time. Joe Nathan’s play over the last decade is certainly going to warrant some consideration for the Hall, but there could be some obstacles awaiting him on his path to enshrinement.
Much like current Twin Nelson Cruz, Nathan didn’t become a big league regular until late into his 20s. Minnesota traded for him in one of the best trades in franchise history and he immediately became one of the best closers in the game. Unfortunately for Nathan, relief pitchers are underrepresented in the Cooperstown’s hallowed halls. The current HOF relievers are Dennis Eckersley, Mariano Rivera, Hoyt Wilhelm, Rich Gossage, Lee Smith, Bruce Sutter, Trevor Hoffman, and Rollie Fingers.
Currently, Billy Wagner has been slowly gaining traction on the HOF ballot. In his fifth year of eligibility, his named was penciled in on 31.7% of the writer’s ballots. This was up 25% from the 2019 ballot where he finished with 16.7% of the vote. Back in 2017, his first year on the ballot, he was only on 10.5% of the ballots.
FanGraphs Jay Jaffe named Wagner and Nathan as the two best relief pitchers outside the Hall. Both Wagner and Nathan are within 1.0 WAR of each other, but Nathan has 1.5 more WPA. While these players put up strong numbers in their era, however, each falls sort of the HOF average for WAR (39.1). Rivera and Eckersley shift the WAR average significantly as they averaged over 59 WAR between the two of them alone.
One way to measure a player’s Hall of Fame worthiness is Jaffe’s scoring system known as JAWS. According to Baseball Reference, a player’s JAWS is their career WAR averaged with their 7-year peak WAR. To examine Nathan, one must compare him to the other relievers already elected to the Hall.
JAWS has Nathan ranked closely to other Hall of Fame relievers. Smith and Sutter rank just above him and Hoffman is two spots behind him with Wagner being between Nathan and Hoffman. Overall, Jaffe places Wagner and Nathan in his top-7 overall relief pitchers through his hybrid average of WAR, WPA, and situational or context-neutral wins (WPA/LI). If Wagner can garner enough support to be elected, Nathan should have the opportunity as well.
Nathan has other statistics that could help his Cooperstown case. Even with his late debut, he was able to pitch into his early 40’s. Along the way, he was elected to six All-Star teams, finished in the top-5 of Cy Young voting twice, struck out more than a batter per inning and he finished in the top-5 in saves five times. Overall, he’s eighth in career saves and he had five seasons with a 1.88 ERA or lower.
Much like Wagner, it is going to be a tough road to Cooperstown. Wagner continues to gain support and Nathan is close to Wagner in many categories. Will Nathan be able to stay on the ballot and eventually be on the stage in Cooperstown? We will have to wait until 2022 to find out.