Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Checking In On Joe Nathan

Joe Nathan was selected to the AL All-Star team this year for the fourth time in six seasons since coming over to the Minnesota Twins. While it has gone unnoticed by many, Nathan is actually having a dazzling season and he's been especially effective as of late.

In 35 appearances this year, Nathan has notched 22 saves while posting a 1.35 ERA and 43-to-7 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 33 1/3 innings. He has posted a ridiculous 0.75 WHIP, which would stand as the best figure of his career, and is holding opposing hitters to a .157 batting average.

In his past 19 appearances, Nathan has pitched 18 2/3 innings and allowed zero runs, seven hits and two walks. He's struck out 28 during that span, and gone a perfect 16-for-16 in save opportunities. That's really about as close to perfect as a relief pitcher can possibly be.

Particularly encouraging are Nathan's strikeout numbers this year. Take a look at this K-rate trends since his first year as Twins closer:

Year (Age): K/9 IP
2004 (29): 11.1
2005 (30): 12.1
2006 (31): 12.5
2007 (32): 9.7
2008 (33): 9.8
2009 (34): 11.6

The dip in strikeout rate over the past couple years seemed to indicate that Nathan was losing a bit of his stuff as he moved into his 30s. That's hardly abnormal and far from disastrous, but still a bit troubling as far as his future outlook is concerned. This year, Nathan has ramped his strikeout rate back up to an elite level and as a result hitters are struggling to reach base against him more than ever.

When the Twins handed Nathan a four-year contract extension prior to last season, many fans grumbled, reasoning that his annual average of $11.75 million was too much money to give a reliever likely to throw more than 70 innings per year. I was always very supportive of the move. Nathan's value as a stable rock at the back end of the Twins' fluctuating and sometimes maddeningly inconsistent bullpen is tough to quantify. But I'll try anyway...

In spite of its ineffectiveness at times this season, the Twins bullpen still ranks fourth in the AL with a 3.76 ERA. If you remove Nathan's contributions, Twins' relievers have combined for a 4.16 ERA -- that'd rank 10th in the league. With the exception of Matt Guerrier (who has also had a sneaky great season), no Twins reliever other than Nathan has a WHIP lower than 1.32.

Nathan currently stands 33 saves short of Rick Aguilera, the Twins' all-time leader in that category. He almost certainly won't get there this year, but barring injury, by the time he finishes his current contract he will almost undoubtedly be reputed as the greatest Twins closer of all time (if he's not already).

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