Thursday, June 26, 2008

The New Sheriff of Saves

On Tuesday night, baseball's all-time saves king took the mound in the ninth inning of a 1-1 tie game at Petco Park. After fanning the first two batters in the inning, Trevor Hoffman surrendered a solo home run on the first pitch he delivered to Brendan Harris, a belt-high fastball that Harris deposted in left-center field. On his next pitch, Hoffman again tossed a poorly placed fastball, this time to Brian Buscher, and once again watched it sail out of the park. Suddenly, the Padres were down 3-1 and a game that had been close all night became all but out-of-reach.

Why did a two-run deficit seem so daunting? Because the bottom of the ninth would clearly belong to Twins closer Joe Nathan, who has been one of the most automatic door-slammers in major-league baseball since he assumed that position in Minnesota back in 2004. At age 40, Hoffman can still get the job done, but he is quite clearly but a shell of his former self. Meanwhile, the 33-year-old Nathan is comfortably in his prime. If Hoffman long held the title of league's most reliable closer, the torch may have been passed to Nathan now. While one can certainly argue that other closers around the league have been more effective than Nathan this season, I think it'd be tough to find a man who has consistently been better at the job over the past four-and-a-half years than the Twins closer.

Since grasping the closer reigns back in 2004, Nathan has accumulated 180 saves while posting a 1.61 ERA and a fantastic 389-to-96 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 314 innings. This past weekend at the Metrodome, there was a pre-game ceremony to induct Rick Aguilera to the Twins Hall of Fame, honoring the team's all-time leader in saves with a banner and plaque. Aguilera was the Twins closer for almost the entire decade of the 1990s, and he saved 254 games over parts of 11 seasons during that span. Certainly, he was a productive player for the Twins for many years, but there is little comparison between him and Nathan. Aguilera never posted an ERA below 2.35 nor did he ever strike out a batter per inning during a full season as the Twins closer. Nathan has posted sub-2 ERAs in three of his four seasons as closer (and appears to be on his way to doing so again this year) and has struck out more than a batter per inning every year. Aguilera was a solid closer who could consistently be counted on to get the job done (unfortunately he was typically doing it for some very bad teams); Nathan is a dominator who goes above and beyond and thrives under pressure.

Since his new contract will keep him with the Twins until at least through the 2011 season, it seems inevitable that Nathan will surpass Aguilera as the team's all-time saves leader as long as he can avoid injury. If all goes to plan, this will probably happen sometime during the 2010 season, in the inaugural year of the new stadium.

Even at that point, Nathan will only be just 35 years old. The fact that he didn't turn into a full-time closer until the age of 29 will probably prevent him from ever having a legitimate shot at challenging Hoffman's save record of 539 (and counting), but if Nathan could pitch to the age of 40, as Hoffman has, while maintaining his current average of 40 saves per year, he would reach a total of 480, which would currently be good for second all-time behind Hoffman.

Of course, it's presumptive to look down the line and anticipate seven more years of injury-free, high-level performance for Nathan, but it's worth noting that he's been quite durable up to this point in his career and has relatively little wear on his arm for a 33-year-old closer. It's a little difficult to believe because he has been so low-key during his career in Minnesota, but if he can stay healthy, Nathan is a good bet to become not only by far the best closer in Twins history, but also one of the great closers in the history of baseball.

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On a side note, I'm filling in for the vacationing Aaron Gleeman on his Daily Dose column at Rotoworld today and tomorrow, so feel free to stop by over there and let me know what you think.

11 comments:

Andrew Kneeland said...

Nice job, Nick. I agree with you. Nathan may be the best closer in the game, and that is why I think we should at least consider trading him.

I think Bobby Korecky should at least be given a chance in the Bigs, and I think Liriano would be a dominant closer should Korecky not be ready.

If anything were to be considered it would obviously be highly controversial, and it should be. I just think it should be considered.

Drew said...

I've been reading the blog for quite a while, but it was nice seeing you fill in for Aaron over at Rotoworld. Good work, and congrats

twayn said...

Andrew, I have to disagree. Just because Korecky has been a closer in AAA there's no reason he couldn't be converted into a setup man and even be dominant in that role. It worked with Neshek until he tore up his elbow. I just think that for all the attention closers get, if you don't have a few strong setup guys in the pen to hold leads and keep you in the game in the late innings, you don't get to use your closer nearly enough. We've seen that firsthand here. And it's nice to have depth in the organization. More than nice really, it's strategic. If your closer goes down due to injury, that can be devastating if you don't have a handy replacement. So I wouldn't consider trading Nathan at all. Boof, maybe, but not Nathan.

Dan said...

Didn't Korecky have an ERA in the mid-high 3's in AAA last year?

Nick N. said...

I think Bobby Korecky should at least be given a chance in the Bigs, and I think Liriano would be a dominant closer should Korecky not be ready.

Korecky's upside seems to be as a decent middle reliever. Liriano seems pretty far from being a dominant anything at this point. In my mind, the only guys with "closer stuff" in this organization right now are Neshek and maybe Anthony Slama. Neshek's out all year and Slama is wayyy too far away.

Trading Nathan has been an extremely popular topic of discussion amongst fans for some time now, but I say keep the guy and let him become the top closer in team history. He's been very loyal to the Twins.

I've been reading the blog for quite a while, but it was nice seeing you fill in for Aaron over at Rotoworld. Good work, and congrats

Thanks!

Didn't Korecky have an ERA in the mid-high 3's in AAA last year?

Yep, 3.71. As a 27-year-old in his second stint at Triple-A. That does not bode well.

dahlian said...

Whither Mariano Rivera?

Nick N. said...

Certainly an argument can be made for Rivera, but I'm not sure he's been as consistently great over the past four years as Nathan, especially considering that he wasn't all that great last year.

dahlian said...

Mo:

Year - IP__ - HR - BB - K_ - ERA
2004 - 78.2 - 03 - 20 - 66 - 1.94
2005 - 78.1 - 02 - 18 - 80 - 1.38
2006 - 75.0 - 03 - 11 - 55 - 1.80
2007 - 71.1 - 04 - 12 - 74 - 3.15
2008 - 35.1 - 02 - 03 - 40 - 0.76

You could make the argument that he is pitching as well now as he has at any point in his career. His peripherals are actually better than they have been in the past, but I don't know if that difference is enough to off-set the lesser offensive environment of recent seasons.

Don't get me wrong, I just think that any best closer in baseball talk is incomplete if Rivera's name isn't at least mentioned. Also, with Mo still going strong (and signed through 2010) and Trevor appearing to be at the end of the line, there's a distinct possibility that Rivera will someday soon surpass Hoffman's all-time saves mark. With 464 saves already to his credit, he's only 75 behind Hoffman.

Jesse said...

Hey Nick--great work at Rotoworld!

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