Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Joe Nathan and History

Joe Nathan is saying all the right things as he attempts to come back from Tommy John surgery.

Upon learning last spring that he'd be spending the next year rehabbing from one of baseball's most serious medical procedures, Nathan pledged to return at full strength in 2011. Every step of the way, he has remained positive, hopeful and determined in his demeanor. He's backed up his words, too. The right-hander hasn't reported any setbacks in his recovery, and was so confident while throwing a bullpen session at Target Field last Friday that he asked his manager to step into the batter's box for a few pitches.

During an interview with ESPN 1500 later in the weekend, Nathan reiterated that his goal is to be the team's closer this year. There's nothing surprising about that, and -- like Twins fans everywhere -- I'm pulling for him.

My interest was piqued by a comment Nathan made in the same interview, when discussing his future outlook: "Before (the surgery) I didn't know how many more years there were. But now that I've had this I feel like this is something that could let me go for another five, six, seven more years."

Now, that's obviously a very optimistic estimation for the 36-year-old reliever. Coming back from Tommy John surgery at this age is one thing, but coming back and pitching effectively for another five, six or seven years?

It's hard to imagine. But if there's one guy who could pull it off, it's Nathan. He's a fiery competitor with a tremendous work ethic, and he'd avoided injury almost completely over his first six years as Twins' closer.

So, for the sake of today's column, let's say Nathan manages to make good and close for another six years, pitching effectively through the age of 41 like fellow closer and recent retiree Trevor Hoffman was able to. Not only would this be an impressive personal feat and one of the great Tommy John success stories of all time, it would also place Nathan among the top statistical closers in baseball history, with a case for the Hall of Fame.

Let's say Nathan averaged 35 saves per season over the next six years. (In his first six years as Twins' closer, he averaged 41.) That would give him 457 career saves and place him fourth on the all-time list, behind only Hoffman, Mariano Rivera and Lee Smith.

It's difficult to guess how Hall of Fame voters will view closers in a decade, when Nathan would become eligible, but big save totals have certainly aided some cases (Hoffman and Rivera are widely considered locks and Smith has received as much as 45 percent of the vote despite being far less dominant than Nathan by other measures).

It's odd to think of Nathan as a Hall of Fame pitcher, because while he's clearly been one of the game's best closers, it doesn't seem like his service in the role has spanned enough time for him to be considered one of the all-time greats. And it hasn't. He's only closed for six years and he's 36, which is why his suggestion that he'd like to do it for another six or seven seems extreme.

The man likes to dream big and set his sights high. I respect that. But for now, he can aim for a more immediately attainable goal: the Twins' all-time save record, held by Rick Aguilera. Nathan is only nine short, and if all goes well he'll own it by the All-Star break.

Then, he can shift his gaze to 450 and the Hall of Fame. Knowing what we know about Nathan, I'd expect nothing less.


Kelly Vance said...

Who are you and what have you done with Nick Nelson?
He is a pessimist and has been singing the blues all winter about the Twins future failings. This post about an aging 36 year old reliever coming off TJ surgery and pitching into his 40s? Getouttahere. You ain't Nick.

But its ok. Your secret is safe with me (and all the other readers). And I'd rather read this than how losing Hardy is a sign of the apocalypse

Anonymous said...

I think Nick's pessimistic streak should pitter out once he see's hardy playing somewhere else.

cy1time said...

If Nathan is healthy and returns to pre-surgery form, our bullpen suddenly doesn't look so bad. But instead of speculating about five more years of Nathan, I think that there's a better question to ask.

If Nathan returns to pre-surgery form and saves 40 games this year, what do you do with the 37 year old, one year removed from TJ surgery? Sign him to another big deal?

VodkaDave said...

Nathan has a team option for 2012 at 12.5 million with a 2 million dollar buy out. If he comes back and pitches anything resembling like he did pre injury the 10.5 million dollar price tag is a no brainer for the Twins to pick up, especially since they will have some money open up with Cuddyers contract off the book.

TwinsFan71 said...

I agree that Tommy John can extend a pitchers career, but a little stroll down "Tommy John" History and I think you'd agree that most pitchers take 1 year to recover and another year to become their former self again (and not too many successes with guys in their mid/late 30s...and I know Nathan didn't start pitching until he was a pro so he his elbow hasn't seen the wear and tear others have, but still its troubling to do this at 36).

A few examples of the 2 year recovery period outside of Liriano (who took the 19 month recovery route) and Neshak (who still isn't able to get abovee 88 MPH after 2 years):
-Chris Carpenter
-Eric Gagne
-Kerry Wood
-Ryan Dempster
-AJ Burnett
-Steven Strasberg (who might not even pitch this year)

I think Bill Smith recognized that 1 year removed from surgery, he couldn't reliably count on Nathan so he had to overpay Capps as an insurance policy.

I'm hoping I'm wrong on this, but it just seems that the Tommy John procedure is alot like a bowl of chili...sure it can be ready in an hour, but to make it right, you should let it sit in the frig for a day a least so everything comes together as it should.

Thomas said...

First and foremost Nick, I love the blog I read it every chance i get!

One correction to your blog, "place him third on the all-time list, behind only Hoffman, Mariano Rivera and Lee Smith."

That would make him 4th correct not 3rd?

Nick N. said...

That would make him 4th correct not 3rd?

Correct. It's a typo that I've been too lazy to fix. Sorry about that.

Dave said...

Man, HoF for Nathan? Thats a pretty bold scenario.

If I were a HoF voter I would probably have to give it to him if he keeps his career ERA as a reliever around or under 2 and keeps his peripherals fairly steady. The problem is if you take his four seasons as a starter in SF, as right now it inflates his ERA by a cool 88 points. That is tricky though; do you take into consideration his numbers before his switch to closer?

Now that is just me, I am not about to get people into the hall based on an arbitrary stat like saves. But we all know that HoF voters just love arbitrary stats. that may change by the time Nathan would be elligable, but who knows.

In the end, Nathan will not pitch 6 more effective years, and I have my doubts about him pitching another 3 effective years. Fun hypo though.

cy1time said...

Thanks, Dave, I was thinking he would be a free agent. I agree with your analysis, too.

On the road with.... said...

This is even more optimistic than the write-up I did about Nathan last week!

Josh said...

I hope Twitchy has his velocity back all the way this season and can close for the Twins again this season. But there's a very good reason the Twins kept Capps around this year: the odds are pretty good Nathan will need a little more time to get it all the way back (if he can).

I don't think picking up Nathan's option will be a no-brainer, even if he is closing from Opening Day. $12.5M is a LOT to pay for a closer, particularly when we've seen how replaceable a role it is on a ballclub. Don't get me wrong, I love Joe Nathan, and his ability to get saves that are more than just 3-out 9th inning jobs gives him more value than most. But for $12.5M you need to be elite, and even're probably overpaying.

If Nathan isn't all the way back until mid-season (which will still be a big plus for the Twins) it will make it a hard call.

HoF will be a longshot for Nathan, if for no other reason than HoF voters aren't real enthusiastic about putting in closers. Rivera will get in, but even Hoffman will probably have to battle for some time. Nathan? It took him a long time to find his place in the majors, and that will probably count against him.

Anonymous said...

Note to Bill Smith: Part ways with Nathan after this season no matter what the stats are. $12 mil+ is too much to spend on aging, damaged closers. That $12 mil can be spent securing the negotiating rights to 4 unproven Japanese players.

BTW, the HOF is for players a notch or two above Nathan.

tborg said...

Can someone remind me about Nathan's injury history? He missed all of 2001 and spent most of 2002 in the minors. I seem to remember reading a story about Nathan having surgery while with the Giants, then getting beat up in the minors the first year afterward (2001?) because his velocity was down. Was the trouble back then also his elbow? If it took him 2 years to get back when he was 26, why should we expect he'll be ready to go in one year when he's 36?

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