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December 4, 2013

Transaction Analysis

Extraordinary Joe?

by Sam Miller

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DETROIT TIGERS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Reportedly agreed to a two-year deal with RHP Joe Nathan [12/3]

It’s practically impossible that our kneejerk anti-closer response is at least partially wrong. We know that there’s nothing special about the ninth inning, that relievers are just failed starters and late-round picks who can be bought in bulk like penny stocks, that their performance fluctuates too much to merit three-year deals or eight-figure salaries. But it’s one thing to note that a handful of GMs are doing it wrong. It’s another to think that virtually every GM is doing it wrong, without reassessing our position.

Remember, Billy Beane was the Johnny Appleseed of the Anybody Can Close approach, but it’s not as though he let anybody close. He just spent a bit less resources--still a lot of resources!--for second-tier options, free agents and first-round picks and power-arm trade targets. And this week, when Beane puts down a possible $10 million chip on Jim Johnson, and reliever-skeptic (and reliever skeptic) Jerry Dipoto goes long on a sidearming Joe Smith, and extremely successful GM Dave Dombrowski uses his 12-hour-old surplus to sign Joe Nathan, it’s worth accepting that something like certainty in the ninth inning (and the eighth, and the seventh) goes a disproportionately long way toward winning teams winning.

Of course, this is where the Nathan problems come home. It’s not that the certainty of an elite closer isn’t more valuable than we rabble appreciate. It’s that Nathan’s certainty isn’t as certain as it appears. It’s the illusion of ninth-inning certainty that gets GMs in trouble.

Nathan is coming off one of the most successful seasons a closer has ever had. It was just the 28th season ever in which a closer (minimum 30 saves) had an ERA+ higher than 275; Nathan now accounts for four of those. He’s got the eighth-best ERA+ ever for a closer (minimum 100 saves), and if we limit it to the past decade, when he really got good, he’s got the second-best ERA+ in baseball, behind only Rivera. At 38, he had his best FIP since 2006.

And yet he’s no sure thing. There are red flags. His fastball velocity dropped by a mile and a half. He allowed only two home runs, despite allowing 67 percent more “deep” fly balls than he did in 2012. His BABIP was a career-low .224, on a career-high 23 percent line drive rate. His strike rate dropped from 67 percent to 64 percent. He’s 38.

All 30 teams would love to have Nathan, of course. The Tigers, who saw their closer melt down in the 2012 postseason and their entire bullpen falter in the 2013, are especially keen to the dangers of uncertainty. But almost every reliever is the same thing: the guy who talks to you, puts you at ease, distracts you from the danger, and then

gives you a push.

Update: Reportedly around $20 million. Can't be mad at this deal.

Sam Miller is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Sam's other articles. You can contact Sam by clicking here

Related Content:  Detroit Tigers,  Transactions

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