Why Joe Nathan belongs in the Hall of Fame

Nathan’s long and illustrious career will finally come to a close this Friday as he retires a Twin. What will the reliever’s legacy look like?

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For Twins fans, Nathan needs no introduction. The righty reliever spent seven seasons of his 16-year career as Minnesota’s closer. During his time with the club, he racked up 260 saves and boasted a 2.16 ERA in 463.1 innings. At his peak, he was one of the most dominant closers in the game and one of the most feared names on a ninth-inning scoreboard. He’s a lock for the Twins Hall of Fame, but does he belong in the real one?

Relievers and the Hall of Fame: a strained relationship

The Hall has not been very forgiving to relievers in recent years. Only five have ever been inducted since closers became a regular feature on MLB rosters in the 1970s. This is due in part to the fact they don’t play as much as other players, and thus they don’t accrue as many of the sexy “milestone” stats that Hall voters like to see on the back of a player’s baseball card. They never have the most wins, they never have the most strikeouts, and their low ERAs are discredited by their lighter workload. The one stat relievers have, though, is the save. 

The save has become the primary tool by which we have measured the value of relievers since it officially became a statistic in 1969. Does a reliever get 40+ saves per season regularly? He must be a good reliever. Saves not only show that a reliever is effective, but they reveal that the manager has trust in the player to get the job done in the clutch.

At least that’s how it used to be. Nowadays there are plenty of other stats we use to assess a reliever’s effectiveness. We look at things like strikeout percentage (K%), walk percentage (BB%), fielding independent pitching (FIP) and even wins above replacement (WAR) to test pitchers. More recently, as managers have learned more about high leverage situations, we have looked at when and how a pitcher is being used to determine his value. Elite relievers like Andrew Miller get used in the eighth, seventh, sometimes even the sixth inning in close games. We’ve learned that there is more to a great reliever than that supposed x-factor that nets them a bunch of saves in their career.

But what does this mean for relievers and the Hall of Fame? Well, it means the voters seem to be a little behind the times. Just look at the 2016 ballot. If you do, you’ll quickly identify the names of two former closers: Trevor Hoffman and Billy Wagner. Both elite relievers in their heyday with similar resumes. Here are some of their career statistics:

  ERA FIP K% BB% Batting Average WAR
Hoffman 2.87 3.08 25.8 7.0 .208 28.4
Wagner 2.31 2.73 33.2% 8.3% .184 28.1

Similar stat lines, right? Add this to the fact that both pitchers appeared in seven All-Star games and played in the same era, and they seem even more similar. There are two major differences between the two, however. One is that in their first year on the Hall of Fame Ballot, Hoffman got 67.3% of the vote and Wagner garnered just 10.5%, over 50 points less. The other main difference is that Hoffman had 601 career saves while Wagner finished with 422. An impressive number of saves but it’s not 601, and even though Wagner edges out Hoffman in most major stats, most voters decided if they would use their vote on a relief pitcher, they would use it on the one with more saves. This is important to consider as we assess Joe Nathan’s Hall of Fame qualifications.

How does Joe Nathan stack up?

As we’ve established, the save is king for relievers getting Hall of Fame votes. So where does that leave Joe Nathan? Well, he finished his career with 377 saves. It’s not 422, and it’s not 601, but with that number, he has more saves than four of the five relievers who have been inducted into the Hall. The only pitcher who has more is Dennis Eckersley, who also started over 350 games in his career, and whose inclusion in the Hall of Fame is not going to be questioned. Let’s look at those four who come in below Nathan though:

  ERA FIP K% BB% Batting Average WAR Saves
Joe Nathan 2.87 3.36 25.9 9.1 .203 27.2 377
Hoyt Willhem 2.52 3.06 17.6 8.5 .211 47.3 228
Rich Gossage 3.01 3.18 20 9.8 .223 42.0 310
Bruce Sutter 2.83 2.94 20.3 7.3 .224 24.6 300
Rollie Fingers 2.90 .296 18.7 7.1 .230 26.1 341

Numbers in bold show the leader for that individual statistic among the five pitchers. Nathan leads in three out of seven, the most out of these five relievers and the only pitcher other than Willhelm to lead in more than one category. If you look back to the previous table, you’ll see he stacks up well against Hoffman, who will likely make the Hall on his second, if not his third ballot. Paradoxically, you’ll see that he’s worse in every category compared to Wagner, who fared far worse in his first year on the ballot. Nathan draws favorable comparisons among the all-time greats.

I’ll take this opportunity to point out I haven’t just cherry-picked stats here to make Joe Nathan look better than he is. These are important stats that have significant relevance to relief pitchers, especially closers. The best relief pitchers keep the ball out of play by striking out a lot of batters (K%), and they don’t let a lot of runners on base (BB% and batting average) in the later innings of games when their team needs to protect a lead. Throughout his career, Nathan proved that he could do both things season after season, and the numbers make a strong case for his induction.

Born in the wrong era?

One of the most frequently used arguments when discussing a player’s Hall of Fame eligibility is whether they were one of the most dominant players in their era. It’s a valid argument since different eras in baseball see different trends take precedence in the play of the game. As a result, statistics from one era aren’t always equatable to statistics from another era, and so comparing statistics across eras can be tricky (unless you are Pedro Martinez). Sometimes a player will have an excellent career that would have made them a lock for the Hall a few decades ago, but they didn’t happen to shine as bright compared to their contemporaries.

Nathan pitched during an era when relievers saw more and more prevalence in the game of baseball. From the 90s all the way through to the present, we have seen starters pitching fewer and fewer innings as teams add more relievers onto their 25 man rosters to soak up those later innings. As a result, a lot of elite relievers were once failed starters who came out of the woodwork as bullpen arms and dominated the competition. Mariano Rivera, who is arguably (perhaps indisputably) the greatest relief pitcher of all time, is one such player. Andrew Miller is another. Dellin Betances is a third. And so on, and so on.

The point is, we’ve seen an influx of high-quality relief pitchers in baseball in the past ten years. Because of this, even though Nathan stacks up well against current Hall-of-Famers, he doesn’t stack up quite as well against some current players. Is it possible that despite his impressive numbers, there are too many players from Nathan’s era who have pitched just as well, if not better than he has, thus making him look less impressive in comparison?

It’s possible, but I’m not sure I buy it. He’s not in the same tier as someone like Rivera, but hardly any closers are. I’d take peak Miller over peak Nathan most days of the week. I’d say the same of Wagner too. The point is, while we are in the midst of the era of the elite reliever, there aren’t that many pitchers who are or have been much better than Nathan was in the same span of time.

Look at all the Hall of Fame relief pitchers I’ve already listed and look at the years their careers spanned:

Dennis Eckersley 1975 – 1998
Rich Gossage 1972 – 1994
Bruce Sutter 1976 – 1988
Rollie Fingers 1968 – 1985
Hoyt Wilhelm 1952 – 1972

Notice anything? Three of these pitchers began their careers in the early to mid 70’s. Two retired in the mid to late 80’s, and two retired in the mid to late 90’s. Eckersley, Gossage, and Sutter all arguably reached their peak within the same five-year span, and yet these are the only relief pitchers in the Hall of Fame today. They didn’t run into any issues of “too much competition.” So, what we have is a precedent of relief pitchers in an era of dominant relief pitchers getting voted into the Hall of Fame along with other relief pitchers from their same era. Why should it be any different for this era?

Limping to the finish

One thing that Nathan definitely does not have going for him is consistency. While peak years are an important aspect of any Hall of Famer’s resume, voters also look at player’s longevity and how they played out the latter half of their career. Nathan had the peak, but he did not age as well as he could have.

His troubles began in 2010 when it was announced that the closer would have to undergo Tommy John surgery. He missed that entire season. 2010 could have been a crucial year for Nathan as he was coming off a 2009 season in which he posted 2.10 ERA with an 11.7 K/9 (his best in two seasons) and 47 saves (the most he had ever had in his career). This was all in his age 34 season before the surgery, and he had shown no signs of slowing down, even on the wrong side of 30.

Nathan came back in 2011 and was a shell of his former self. His ERA ballooned to 4.84 and his K/9 dropped to 8.7. It was his last season on the Twins and it made for a bitter goodbye.

Then in 2012, the Rangers took a chance on the reliever, and it paid off big for them. In two seasons with Texas he posted a 2.09 ERA and racked up 80 saves with a 10.5 K/9. It looked like the old Joe was back, but fate had different plans. Detroit signed the 39-year-old to a two-year deal prior to the 2014 season. That year Nathan pitched to a 4.81 ERA and saw his K/9 drop to 8.4, the lowest it had been in 10 years. Yet, he still recorded 37 saves on the year.

Then, in 2015, tragedy struck when a torn ligament resulted in the need for his second Tommy John surgery in his career. In 11 appearances from 2015-2016, Nathan recorded a single save, and the final one of his career.

It’s not clear how healthy Nathan was and for how long after his first Tommy John surgery. If he had never torn that ligament the first time, it’s possible that the closer could have recorded at least 50 more saves in his career, if not more. Given how effective he was in his mid-30’s, I don’t think it would have been unreasonable to expect him to reach 450 saves by the end of his career. That number would have bumped him up to fourth all-time, behind Rivera (652), Hoffman (601), and Lee Smith (478).

That’s just not how things panned out, and it’s called the “Hall of Fame” and not the “Hall of What Could Have Been” for a reason.

The verdict

Unfortunately, there’s no objective answer here. That’s because there is not a set of objective guidelines that govern who gets into the Baseball Hall of Fame and who doesn’t. To complicate things the voters have a weird track record for voting in relief pitchers. The most recent reliever to be inducted was Bruce Sutter in 2006 after his 13th year on the ballot. That means it has now been more than a decade since a relief pitcher has been inducted into the Hall, the longest stretch for any position by far.

For the relievers who have been inducted, there seems to be little to no consistency in terms of qualifications. While all five pitchers in the Hall have at least 300 saves, Wagner’s 422 only got him a 10% vote in his first year on the ballot, and it’s not clear if he will ever get in, although I’m inclined to think he will, eventually. Still, there are also plenty of pitchers with 300 career saves who haven’t even come close, so Nathan’s 377 doesn’t guarantee him anything.

If it were up to me, I’d put him in. His utter dominance in his first six seasons with Minnesota was no joke, and from 2004-2009 I’d say he was the second best closer in the game, behind only Mariano Rivera. Fickle voters, a late start and early end to his career will likely be the two biggest factors that keep him out though.

But who knows? Maybe we’ll see an influx of voters in the coming years with a greater appreciation for the value that elite relievers bring to their teams. Whatever happens to Billy Wagner will indicate what happens to Nathan.

Either way, it was one hell of a career, Joe, and you will always be remembered as one of the greats.

Do you think Joe Nathan belongs in Cooperstown? Let us know in the comments below!