Can Joe Nathan Still Make You Stand Up and Shout?

The standard timetable for a pitcher to return from Tommy John surgery is one year. At that point, the expectation is that a pitcher will be pretty close to the player they were before their injury. Some guys do it quicker than that, some guys never really make it back because of changes made to their motion or to their pitch selection, but at a year, the outlook is typically fairly clear.

For reasons I’ve yet to really hammer out, the status quo hasn’t been the case for the Minnesota Twins. Neither of the last two pitchers they had undergo the procedure, Francisco Liriano and Joe Nathan, hit the one year mark and showed anything resembling the stuff they had before their injury. Liriano’s issues are deeper than simply failing to recover from his injury, but Nathan looked like a husk of the pitcher who missed all of the 2010 season after tearing his UCL early in spring training.

In his first 17 appearances — from the start of the season until he went on the DL — Nathan simply could not get hitters out. He allowed 13 runs in his first 15.1 innings of work, posted a WHIP of 1.70, and allowed opposing hitters a .274/.370/.500 line. He recorded a few strikeouts along the way, but with Matt Capps getting the save opportunities, he couldn’t possibly strike out enough hitters to make him worth playing.

Following a month on the disabled list with inflammation in his elbow — though in all likelihood, the inflammation was as much in his ERA as in his arm — Nathan looked much better than he did in the early part of the season. He still wasn’t nearly the dominant reliever the Twins had hoped he would be, but he held hitters to a much more reasonable .193/.239/.367 line with a 3.38 ERA and a 28/5 K/BB ratio.

It comes as no surprise that the Twins declined his $12.5 million option for this year, especially in light of the fact that they may try to reduce payroll for 2012. Paying any reliever that kind of money is questionable, but allocating that high a percentage of payroll to a player the team isn’t convinced will be a world-beater is an unnecessary risk. Nathan has been linked to both the Twins and Mets as a closer candidate and is likely to come cheaper than Jonathan Papelbon or even Francisco Rodriguez, which may make him a undervalued source of saves.

Obviously it’s important to see where Nathan lands before putting him on your draft board. For example, if he joins the rest of the Twins’ free agents in Philadelphia and you don’t play in a holds league, don’t bother. However, I think there’s a very real chance that he opens the season getting save chances for someone, the question is if he’ll finish the season in the same role.

As a brief aside, I’ve run into the belief that closers on good teams are more valuable than those on bad teams. It makes logical sense, but it doesn’t always work that way. The 80-win Nationals recorded 49 saves, while the 102-win Phillies had just 47; the 91-win Rays recorded 32 saves and so did the 63-win Twins. The Astros did finish with the league’s worst record and a league-low 25 saves, but generally speaking, I’d rather grab a closer on a bad team who is going to get close to 100 percent of the save opps than a pitcher on a good team who will get some of the closing duties, but who will have to share.

Much of the concern over Nathan is due to his drop in velocity and it’s not hard to see why. Immediately after returning to the majors, Nathan’s velocity was well below his career levels, which helps explain why he was giving up such hard contact. After his month on the DL, his velocity was much closer to at least his 2009 levels before slipping a bit to end the year. With a full offseason of traditional strength and conditioning work, it seems likely that he’ll have more consistency in his velocity rather than a huge jump at midseason and a slide at the end.

Working against Nathan is the fact that he’ll be 37 this season and while age matters less for closers than for other position players — see Hoffman, Trevor or Rivera, Mariano — Nathan is likely to see something of a dip in his velocity sooner or later whether he’d had surgery or not. There’s no way to know when that drop will come for Nathan, but his age does complicate the value calculation.

Nathan is not Joel Zumaya; he has solid secondary offerings to get hitters out if the velocity isn’t there, though he uses his fastball to set up hitters for the slider or curveball. I think he can function without getting back the extra tick on his fastball, but he’ll need to be more aggressive in the strike zone early in counts so that hitters can’t sit on a pitch they know they can drive. In 1-0, 2-0, and 3-0 counts, Nathan was extremely dependent on his fastball, making it all the more important for him to throw his curveball effectively on 0-0 or on 1-0 to keep the count close and the hitters off balance.

As I mentioned above, any long-term planning regarding Nathan should wait until he settles on a team, but he’s worth keeping on your radar for cheap saves. I think the velocity issues he had last year will be less problematic for him in 2012, especially if he can use his curveball as a strong set up pitch for his wipeout slider.

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Dan enjoys black tea, imperial IPAs, and any competition that can be loosely judged a sport. Follow him on Twitter.

3 Responses to “Can Joe Nathan Still Make You Stand Up and Shout?”

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  1. B N says:

    While it doesn’t have much to do with Nathan’s situation necessarily, there is actually a recipe for save opps by a team: you want a closer for a team that will win a lot of games but won’t score a lot of runs. Hence why SF has been a great save generator for the last few years and the Pirates were great for much of last year. Intuitively this makes sense: if you’re up by more than 3 runs, there is no save. You might as well have lost the game- no save possible.

    This is why teams like the Yankees consistently put up less save opportunities than even some of the worst teams in the league. Let’s look at 2008, which demonstrates this nicely:
    Yankees – 89 Wins, Rivera 40 Save Opps
    SF – 72 Wins, The Beard 47 Save Opps
    Angels – 100 Wins, K-Rod 69 Save Opps

    So, astounding as it might be, Mariano Rivera could have 10% more saves if he had been playing for the SF that year. On the converse, K-Rod was on a team that won a ton of close games and was seeing opportunities regularly. He was also helped by the fact that the Angels are pretty staunch about giving their close all the save opps. (Compared to when the Yankees won 103 games in 2010, but Rivera had only 46 opps)

    So the saves a closer is likely to get is approximately:
    (% of Opps given to Closer) x (% of Wins by =RunsScored – RunsAllowed>=1)

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    • B N says:

      Hmm… it mangled my comment for some reason. Guess it doesn’t like equation type things? Don’t know.

      The moral of the story is that one factor is mainly due to the manager’s tendencies in using a closer: (% opps given to closer)

      The other factor is purely a function of the team’s tendency toward save opps. That’s actually something we should be able to estimate via probability, as:
      P(3>= RunScored – RunsAllowed >= 1)

      This is a slight overestimate, as there will be a small fraction of games that occur back-to-back where the closer will be unavailable, where the closer comes in during a tie, or where a walk-off-hit occurs. But it would be a good enough estimate in my opinion for the opps given to a team.

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  2. Colin says:

    Really? Name me some pitchers who were roughly the same pitcher as before at the one year mark? The status quo to me seems to be one year before pitching, 1.5-2 years before pitching effectively again if at all.

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