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  • Billy Wagner is Paving Joe Nathan’s Path to Cooperstown

    Cody Christie

    Last summer, the Twins organization elected Joe Nathan to the Twins Hall of Fame, a well-deserved honor for the former All-Star closer. Nathan was tremendous during his time in a Twins uniform and his eyes should be set on an even more prestigious Hall of Fame, the one located in Cooperstown, NY.

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    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.

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    Did we realize what we had all those years with Nathan coming out of the pen for the 9th inning?  I don't have a vote, but he would be in for me.


    And speaking of Nathan.  Every time Zach Littell enters a game I think of Nathan.  Just something about him causes me to think if it is possible that Littell can become the Twins current day Joe Nathan.  Sure would be nice, wouldn't it? 



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    Wagner struck out 33% of all batters he faced; Nathan almost 26%. Wagner ERA was less by about 0.5 run, WHIP was less than 1 for Wagner versus 1.12. His strikeout per walk was 3.99 versus 2.84.


    Wagner was better than Trevor Hoffman who is in the HOF.

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    No.  I am not a relief pitcher in the HOF fan.  I loved having Nathan on the team, but never felt I was watching a HOF pitcher.  The fact is I would remove most of those already in rather than adding more.  RP and DH are just not on the same level as SP and players who have to field a position. 

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    While RPs are generally mediocre at best starters that found themselves pushed to the pen, I do think the elite of them should be in the HOF.


    I do not think Hoffman is part of that elite club. Billy Wagner absolutely is. With Hoffman in, I can't believe Billy Wagner is struggling.


    This coming from a guy who can't understand how Kenny Lofton was one and done while his vastly inferior teammate for many of those years, Omar Vizquel, is likely going to make it. But that's another discussion.

    Joe Nathan is a borderline case. I am a big hall guy, meaning put in guys like Kenny Lofton, Andrew Jones, Tommy John, & Scott Rolen (not Omar Vizquel & Harold Baines big hall though...I have SOME standards). As far as reliever go, Nathan was clearly one of the six best ever. I'd say five best ever.

    I'd put him in, but like Andrew Jones or Scott Rolen, it's not a travesty if he doesn't make it. 


    As long as they don't include Harold Baines or Omar Vizquel. Then all the standards are broken.

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    I would love to see Joe Nathan in the HOF. As the parent of two young boys at the time, I considered him hands-down the most willing to sign autographs, etc., and he seemed to set the tone so that other bullpen guys followed his lead. 


    That said, I wouldn't have considered him as having a shot until I look at the stats you name, which seem to suggest that he's better than I've given him credit. However, I think the fact that I had to look that up to see probably suggests how he's viewed.


    I think he'll have a tough shot with the writers, but maybe veterans committees down the road will see him as a Ted Simmons -- really, really good, but typically under the radar. Now that I think of it, there's somewhat of a parallel with Simmons. Simmons was good under the shadow of Bench, the best catcher of all time. Nathan spent a lot of years in the shadow of Rivera, history's best closer. 

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    I look at other possible HOFers and think both Nathan and Wagner are marginal for deserving induction. This year, Jeter makes it on the first ballot and Curt Schilling should finally bring votes in (if the writers can put politics aside as they should - evaluate baseball). Larry Walker is another marginal guy. Whenever Clemons and Bonds get to their final year; that’s when you vote them in (just think of controversy in 15-20 years when cheating Astros are to be considered!). So, I won’t be upset either way if Wagner and/or Joe get a yes or no ultimately.

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