Cliff Lee is having an amazing year for the Indians. At this point, he seems like nearly a shoe-in for the American League Cy Young Award. If he wasn't, the front-runner would likely be Francisco Rodriguez, who has already notched 50 saves this year and seems likely to break Bobby Thigpen's single-season record of 57.
But, as Mr. Mosvick discussed on Tuesday, Rodriguez has not been the best closer in the AL this year. Not even close. K-Rod's gaudy save total has caused people to overlook the incredible things Mariano Rivera has been able to do this season at the age of 38, and also to overlook perhaps the most valuable reliever in all of baseball: Joe Nathan.=
The Angels have completed a lot of victories this year with Rodriguez on the mound. Yet, his value is overstated, as his save total has more to do with the fact that his team has played in a lot of close victories than any particular level of dominance on his part. Moreover, Rodriguez's presence on his team can hardly be viewed as crucial; in fact, he might not even be the best reliever on bullpen. Darren Oliver and Scot Shields both hang right with Rodriguez in terms of ERA and WHIP, and 24-year-old Jose Arredondo (Rodriguez's heir apparent) has muzzled hitters with a 1.18 ERA, 1.02 WHIP and .189 BAA here in his rookie campaign. If Rodriguez wasn't effectively closing out these games for the Angels, someone else would be.
This is not the case for the Twins. We've all watched games slip away again and again with relievers not named Nathan on the mound, so one must ask: where would this team be without its newly re-signed closer? The answer is that they probably would not be anywhere close to first place.
Win Probability Added is a fun little statistic that measures a player's contributions to his team and gives credit when he is able to deliver in situations that more strongly affect the outcome of a ballgame. Nathan leads all American League relievers in WPA at 4.28. He holds a substantial lead over the next man down the list, Oakland's Brad Zeigler (3.76) and is well ahead of the fifth-ranking Rodriguez (3.29) and sixth-ranking Rivera (3.19). Oh, and the next Twin on that list after Nathan? Matt Guerrier, at 47 (0.50).
The importance of closer role in baseball generally tends to be overrated, but great relievers who can reliably shut down opposing offenses in high-leverage situations are not. Nathan has been the best in the league in this regard.
A player's importance to his respective team is not really taken into account when it comes to Cy Young consideration the way it is with the Most Valuable Player award. But, if it was, Nathan would have to be one of the very top choices for the honor in the AL. Few players at any position have been as integral to their team's success as he has been while closing out victories for the Twins. Because his raw stats (1.11 ERA, 0.88 WHIP, 36 saves, 62/13 K/BB) are highly impressive, Nathan will likely end up among the top five vote-getters for the Cy Young Award for the third time in five years, which is pretty darn impressive for a closer.
Extending their closer's contract continues to look like one of the best decisions made by the Twins this past offseason. It's pretty scary to think about where this team would be right now without him.