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Should Joe Nathan be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame?

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The powerhouse closer probably deserves a better look than he’s getting.

Kansas City Royals v Minnesota Twins Photo by Adam Bettcher/Getty Images

This is the second article in a breakdown miniseries regarding the 2022 Hall of Fame candidates with ties to YOUR Minnesota Twins. Links to previous/future articles will be updated here!

HOF, Minnesotan Style | Justin Morneau | Joe Nathan | Torii Hunter |

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Nathan, Texas Ranger.

And San Francisco Giant, Detroit Tiger, and — remember this one? — Chicago Cub. Also, unofficially, Washington National.

After six incredible (and one explainably mediocre) seasons with the Twins, a 37-year-old Joe Nathan hit the free agent market in the winter of 2011, joining the ranks of the un-signed for the first time since his major-league debut in 1999. Until that point, the former 6th-round draft pick had relied on trades and extensions to get him through his career.

That offseason, Nathan signed a two-year deal with Texas for $14.5m, guaranteed; he would make two All-Star Games in each of his two years with the team, but saw his third-year option bought out for a half-million.

At this point, Nathan wandered off to longtime rival Detroit, set a few quick career records, then underwent his second Tommy John surgery.

The Chicago Cubs picked him up in mid-2016, let him rehab a little bit, let him pitch a little bit, and let him be DFA’d a little bit. The San Francisco Giants — his alma mater — gave him some innings after rosters expanded. The Washington Nationals gave him a spring invite but nothing more; by September of 2017, Nathan would officially ink a one-day contract with Minnesota and call it a career.

That career, quite simply, was incredible.

Kansas City Royals v Minnesota Twins Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Making the Case

Here are just a few claims to fame that Joe Nathan can argue for:

  • Highest save percentage in MLB history (89.33%, min. 200 saves)
  • Second only to Mariano Rivera in AL saves
  • Nine seasons with 35+ saves
  • Four seasons with 40+ saves
  • Five seasons with sub-1.89 ERA
  • Most seasons ever with 35 saves, sub-1.89 ERA, sub-1.00 WHIP (four)
  • 26.7 bWAR
  • Cy Young votes in two seasons
  • Six-time All-Star
  • 2009 AL Rolaids Relief Man Award
  • Twins franchise leader in career saves (260), single-season saves (47), K/BB ratio (4.19), and WHIP (0.96)

Joe Nathan was ridiculous. Anyone who was following the Twins ten-plus years ago remembers what it was like to have the guy in the back of your bullpen, waiting for the ninth inning, and for that guy to be Joe Nathan. He’s the best closer in franchise history, a distinction which isn’t particularly close, even with Jeff Reardon, Rick Aguilera, and all 683 of their combined career saves on that ledger.

But, we will quickly be reminded, relievers are infamously volatile. Nathan logged 16 years in the big leagues, a solid chunk of change for a bullpen arm, and still managed to litter an All-Star resume with plenty of speed bumps.

Is there a fair argument that Nathan was head and shoulders above the rest when he finally gave up the ghost? Or we have we already closed the book on his playing career?

Joe Nathan, Advanced

We went over JAWS last time out, and how Justin Morneau stacked up against the pool of existing HOF first baseman. We can do the same exercise with Joe Nathan, although a statistic like Wins Above Replacement is, as a general rule, less effective in evaluating the inherent volatility and production standards for a relief pitcher. Still, Jay Jaffe (the inventor of JAWS) is about to come up a lot, so it’s a worthwhile endeavor anyway. Here’s the table:

Joe Nathan vs. The HOF

Player(S) Career WAR 7yr-peak WAR JAWS
Player(S) Career WAR 7yr-peak WAR JAWS
Joe Nathan 26.7 21.7 24.2
Average HOF RP 39.1 26.0 32.6

Because this table deals with small sample sizes all over the place, let’s make a couple things clear as far as Cooperstown and the relief pitching market is concerned. There are EIGHT — that’s it — closers who have been inducted into the Hall. Of those eight, one is Mariano Rivera, who is the only contemporary closer (so, not a stopper/three-inning save type) to get anywhere near the WAR numbers he did. Four others had careers in which they logged 1700+ innings.

Personally, I think the only realistic Hall comparisons to Joe Nathan are Lee Smith, Trevor Hoffman, and Bruce Sutter. (Billy Wagner isn’t in the HOF, so let’s forget about him for a bit.)

It’s hard to be objective about Hall comparisons when there are only eight members of your position enshrined in the first place, and one of them was Mariano Rivera. We don’t hold up every outfielder to Willie Mays; Rivera being an inner-circle Hall-of-Famer in an immensely narrow field skews the pool a little.

Each of those comparison arms — Smith, Hoffman, and Sutter — pitched between 1,000-1,200 innings in their career, with two or fewer seasons with appearances in a starting capacity. Nathan checked out at just over 920, but underwent those two Tommy John surgeries (only really “coming back” from one once.) Smith, Hoffman, and Sutter each put up under 30.0 bWAR. Hoffman and Sutter (and Rivera) each logged sub-3.00 ERAs.

Joe Nathan has a better ERA and lower WHIP than Lee Smith, the same ERA as Trevor Hoffman, and a lower WHIP and better K/9 than Sutter (along with 77 more saves in over 100 fewer innings.) If you throw these four closers into a statistical blender, they’re each going to have some pros and cons over the others, but when you pour that milkshake out, there’s not much of an argument that they don’t belong in the same dish. These four are absolutely performance peers.

With that in mind, here’s a second look at Nathan, this time compared to just those three Hall-worthy pitchers:

Joe Nathan vs. Some Guys, Plus R-JAWS

Player(S) Career WAR 7yr-peak WAR JAWS R-JAWS
Player(S) Career WAR 7yr-peak WAR JAWS R-JAWS
Joe Nathan 26.7 21.7 24.2 24.4
Trevor Hoffman 28.0 19.4 23.7 27.1
Lee Smith 28.9 20.8 24.8 21.0
Bruce Sutter 24.1 24.3 24.2 18.1

Okay, so I mentioned that WAR is generally not as useful as it could be when it comes to evaluating relievers. Contemporary statistical analysis — or at least, the contemporary statistics we get to know about (that aren’t proprietary) — point us to additional metrics. One is R-JAWS, which I’ll go into next since it appeared on the above table.

R-JAWS is another Jay Jaffe creation, designed because relievers are just weird, man — and their unconventional usage, constantly-evolving deployments, and generally short outings have the tendency to retain a lot of statistical noise when seen through the lens of WAR, as opposed to position players who are given thousands and thousands of plate appearances and defensive innings to balance things out and provide more inarguable numbers.

R-JAWS is simple enough — instead of just WAR, it takes an average of WAR, WPA (Win Probability Added), and WPA/LI (WPA divided by “Leverage Index,” which will then resolve to value provided regardless of leverage of the game.)

After running the numbers, Jaffe’s tweet from a few months prior illustrates the changes well:

After this re-calculation, Nathan moves much closer to Billy Wagner — whose HOF case is largely kept afloat by rabid sabermetricians. First, take a look back at the original column — you’ll notice that the JAWS approach corroborates what I already thought about Nathan, which is that his most relevant comparisons are Smith, Sutter, and Hoffman — with Wagner right in the mix, but not a current member of the Hall.

The R-JAWS result elevates Hoffman, Wagner, and Nathan away from the rest of the pack and into much clearer top-10 territory. Lee Smith and Bruce Sutter have slipped back a bit (Sutter falling out of the top-20 entirely.) Nathan maintains some distance between himself and Jonathan Papelbon — a fringier case who pops up occasionally in Nathan conversations — and is behind Wagner by a negligible amount of R-JAWS.

In my opinion, if you’re arguing Wagner’s candidacy, as so many are, you need to be arguing Nathan’s. Unfortunately, the current voting body isn’t so convinced.

Filling in the Ballot

I promise I’ll shut up about Jay Jaffe, but I learned that he agrees with most of what I had researched for this article, and if there’s one thing I love, it’s validation.

In addition to coming up with that metric to re-evaluate Hall of Fame standards for relief pitchers, Jaffe is also a voting member of the BBWAA. Based on his own metrics — and undoubtedly countless others — he agreed that Nathan should be in, and included Joe as one of his 10 choices for this year’s ballot.

To this point, only three other voters have done the same. In addition to Jaffe, we have Rob Biertempfel (who covers the Pittsburgh Pirates for the Athletic), Ian Harrison (AP/freelance fella), and Howard Sinker (a digital editor at the Star Tribune.)

As of January 24th, Joe Nathan would need another 16 to even stay on the ballot past his first year, and it’s not looking good. His 2.2% mark is barely edged out by Tims Lincecum and Hudson (3.4% and 2.8%, respectively), who are a step ahead of Nathan in the balloting, but nonetheless would be dropped as well if voting ended today.

(For what it’s worth, Billy Wagner has 87 votes — good enough for 48.9% of the total logged so far, and more than plenty to keep him on next year’s ballot, which will be his 8th.)

Part of the issue, for my money, is simply this year’s offering. There is so much ink to be spilled about these players, especially those who are in their dwindling years of candidacy. You have to make a decision on pre-existing candidates like Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Curt Schilling, Scott Rolen, Omar Vizquel, Sammy Sosa, Manny Ramirez, Gary Sheffield, Todd Helton, and Andruw Jones — and then you have other first-year candidates like Alex Rodriguez and David Ortiz, the latter of which is one of three candidates (joining Bonds and Clemens) who are currently on track for election based on the current count.

Alternatively, voters could be looking at some of Nathan’s more current comparisons — Craig Kimbrel and Kenley Jansen come to mind — and positing that Nathan is too close in value to those modern closers, and that none of them should be in at all. (I’ve also seen it suggested that Nathan’s proximity in value to Wagner is more of a knock on Wagner than it is a boon for Joe.)

I don’t think Joe Nathan is a priority right now to the voting committee. It’s not Joe Nathan’s fault that his first appearance is on a brutally stacked ballot, but it could wind up costing him. With 10 worthy candidates on the list already, and voters seemingly more reticent than ever to actually dole out votes, it’s almost certain that Nathan fails to reach the 5% threshold to remain on the ballot, irrespective of his actual merits of induction.

It illuminates the more-or-less arbitrary nature of candidacy and selection requirements, and points towards a potential Veterans Committee look; if fondly-remembered players with weaker statistical arguments can be admitted after-the-fact, one would have to think that Nathan — who is both fondly remembered and mathematically exceptional — should get a fairer look on a more limited ballot down the road.

Until then, his supporters in Twins Territory will have to rely on those fond memories, until such time that his horse-cheeked bronze plaque has another chance to make its way into Cooperstown.

Chicago White Sox v Minnesota Twins Photo by Bruce Kluckhohn/Getty Images

Poll

Should Joe Nathan be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame?

This poll is closed

  • 79%
    Yes
    (69 votes)
  • 20%
    No
    (18 votes)
87 votes total Vote Now