Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Where'd You Go, Joe?

I wrote the following short blurb in the Dugout Splinters insert for GameDay Magazine back in April, when the Twins had played just 15 games:
Free Joe Nathan!

Closer Joe Nathan will make $11.25 million this season as part of the new contract he signed at the end of spring training. The rest of the Twins’ 12-man pitching staff combined will make roughly $13 million this season. Obviously, Nathan’s workload won’t compare to that of a full-time starter, but just look at the way the bullpen innings had been divvied up so far entering play on Thursday:

Brian Bass: 11 IP
Pat Neshek: 6 IP
Joe Nathan: 6 IP
Matt Guerrier: 5.2 IP
Juan Rincon: 4.2 IP
Dennys Reyes: 4 IP
Jesse Crain: 3.2 IP

Despite being the team’s highest-paid player, Nathan hadn’t logged significantly more innings through 15 games than most of the team’s struggling set-up men.

To be clear, Nathan hasn’t been underused, at least not in a traditional sense. He is 5-for-5 in save opportunities, and his six innings through 15 games put him on pace for about 65 on the season, which wouldn’t be a terribly significant drop-off from his workloads during his first four seasons with the Twins. Furthermore, it’s difficult to argue too much with the way Gardenhire has run his bullpen over the past several seasons, and it’s especially tough to criticize his use of Nathan, who has thrived and developed into an elite reliever since joining the Twins while avoiding any serious injury problems. Yet, while the Twins’ bullpen blew late leads in both games in the Tigers series, Nathan sat in the bullpen and watched, waiting for a save opportunity that never actually came.

So, what I propose is this: bring in Nathan during the eighth or even seventh inning of tight games from time to time, and utilize his ability to prevent runs better than any other pitcher on the roster. If necessary, offset his extra usage by letting Pat Neshek or Jesse Crain get a few of those cushy saves where the team has a three-run lead going into the ninth.

This strategy may ultimately result in a few less saves for Nathan, but it also may result in a few more wins for the team. And, when you’re paying a guy such a high percentage of your total team payroll, shouldn’t that be the ultimate goal?
I wrote this right after the Twins had suffered a two-game sweep at Comerica Park in a series where the Tigers scored consecutive comeback wins by beating up on the Twins bullpen while never having to face Nathan. Nearly three months later, we find a very similar situation unfolding at Fenway Park. The Twins bullpen has now lost the first two games of this important series against the Red Sox, and the All-Star Nathan has sat in the bullpen watching on both occasions.

Using closers almost exclusively in save situations is an extremely annoying managerial trait that is certainly not limited to Ron Gardenhire. But as terrific as Nathan has been this year and as shaky as the rest of the Twins' relievers have been at points during the season, you'd think that maybe at some point the manager would try and diverge from traditional thinking. It's enormously frustrating to watch games slip away from the Twins because mediocre (or worse) throwers like Brian Bass and Matt Guerrier are on the hill in crucial situations while the dominant Nathan sits around waiting for an opportunity that never arises. Nathan has not recorded more than three outs in a game once this season, in spite of the fact that he did so seven times last year with no apparent ill effect.

The Twins bullpen was very solid during the team's recent winning stretch, so it's not necessarily appropriate to be overly hard on them for dropping a couple games against a tough offense in a hostile park. Yet, for two straight nights now the Twins have had very good outings from their starting pitcher erased by relief meltdowns while the team's highest-paid player and top bullpen weapon was kept out of the game in order to stringently stick to a traditional role that is built out of poor logic to begin with. That's a tough pill to swallow.

On the bright side, the bullpen won't likely have the opportunity to ruin a great starting pitching performance today with Livan Hernandez toeing the rubber for the Twins. For some reason, that doesn't make me feel much better.

12 comments:

Twins Fix said...

A comment I read at TwinkieTown:

"This reminds me of when he kept trotting Rincon out there. Maybe he is trying to show management how badly we need bullpen help?"

Dwade said...

If there is any good coming from Nathan's lack of use, and I stress the IF, it is that he should be in good shape for the stretch run. The Twins close the season with 7 of their last 10 against current division leaders. We will almost certainly need Nathan to be at his best in those series, so perhaps this rest will help him down the line.

Seriously though, it isn't like he's gassed after one inning. Gardy should have had him out there last night instead of Bass.

Nick N. said...

Nathan has never really worn down at the end of the season in the past. On the contrary, August and September were perhaps his best months last year.

jtizzle said...

Wow, I said the same exact thing last night when it was 5-3 and manny was coming to the plate in the 8th. Nathan was off the night before, there is no harm in using him to record a 5 out save. I understand going with Reyes and Guirer to try to get through the 8th but when things don't go right, go to the big gun. It makes me sick that the Twins lost these two games where there starters were on top of there game. Leaving the bases loaded and runners on third doesn't help much either though.

Anonymous said...

It's crazy to think that today's closers somehow can't go for another two, three, four outs like the old boys did decades back. If anything, guys like Nathan are in Better shape than their predacessors. I sometimes think it's become more of a mental trap: just focus on those 3 outs, shed excess stress on body/mind, tunnel vision.

Judd
C.P. Twins Blogger

ca said...

With the mindset of "best reliever only pitches in save situations" permeating baseball thought at the moment, it almost seems like you need two dominant relievers to be successful--one to be the glory boy who gets saves, the other to be the "shut the other team down in non-save situations" guy. Otherwise, unless you get a yet-to-be-discovered manager who can think outside the closer box, the Brian Basses of the world are getting the ball in big 8th-inning spots. Unfortunately.

I think the last two games highlight how much the Twins miss Neshek. All of the work he would have done is being done by the less talented relievers, and none of it by Nathan.

Nick N. said...

With the mindset of "best reliever only pitches in save situations" permeating baseball thought at the moment, it almost seems like you need two dominant relievers to be successful--one to be the glory boy who gets saves, the other to be the "shut the other team down in non-save situations" guy.

This is a great point, and it's why I think you can almost make an argument that Neshek has been more valuable than Nathan over the past couple years.

Neshek's numbers aren't as good, but think about it: he's the one coming in specifically to match up against tough batters, and often entering difficult and pressure-packed situations with runners already on base in tight game. Nathan virtually always enters the game with a fresh inning to work with in the ninth, and rather than matching up against the team's best hitters, he'll just face whichever three batters happen to be due up that inning.

So, yes, I think the team really is hurting in the absence of Neshek.

Anonymous said...

It was only a matter of time before this weak-ass bullpen got completely exposed, as it pathetically has in Boston. Nathan is not the answer, going out and getting a true middle-inning bulldog (or two) with a stopper mentality is. Until that happens, this team has no chance against true contenders. We should soon see how seriously management regards the team's recent resurgence, by how it addresses - or doesn't address - the most glaring deficit on the team.

Anonymous said...

Using closers almost exclusively in save situations is an extremely annoying managerial trait that is certainly not limited to Ron Gardenhire.

In fact, there isn't a manager in baseball who doesn't use his closer pretty much that way. The folks who disagree with it are mostly showing their ignorance of managing a bullpen. And with good reason. Nathan is effective in part because he is used only in those situations.

It's crazy to think that today's closers somehow can't go for another two, three, four outs like the old boys did decades back.

Of course they can, that's how setup guys are used. That doesn't make it optimal. There is a reason everyone talks about Fingers, Gossage and Marshall. That is about the entire list of "old boys" who were effective as "closers" in anything like the modern sense while pitching 100+ innings every year.

If its not broke, don't fix it.

Nick N. said...

In fact, there isn't a manager in baseball who doesn't use his closer pretty much that way. The folks who disagree with it are mostly showing their ignorance of managing a bullpen. And with good reason. Nathan is effective in part because he is used only in those situations.

If you can explain to me how using your best reliever to pitch the final inning with a three-run lead against the Royals while holding him out of a tie game in the eighth inning against the Red Sox constitutes more effective usage, I would really love to hear it. Maybe I'm just being ignorant.

Nathan is effective because he's good. It has nothing to do with being consistently limited to a particular type of situation.

If its not broke, don't fix it.

The past three games suggest that something is broke.

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