March 6, 2014
Tale of the Tape
Joe Nathan vs. Sergio Romo
It happens in every draft. That moment when, despite your best intentions to avoid forking over a draft pick for a closer, you realize you’ll probably need to at least be somewhat competitive in saves if you’re going to make a run at your standard league title. And while I prefer waiting and speculating on saves as much as the next guy, there’s very definite value to be had in grabbing an established closer to anchor your bullpen in these formats. When that moment comes, and you’re actually going to sacrifice a pick to make this scenario a reality, it’s really important that you come through with the safest option possible to bag you the saves you need.
So, let’s take a look at a couple of the “safer” proven-closer types you’re likely to encounter around the middle rounds of your draft. In one corner, Joe Nathan, the newly signed and minted closer for the Detroit Tigers. In the other, Sergio Romo, another veteran coming off of his first full season saving games in San Francisco. Nathan is currently the seventh closer going off the board in NFBC drafts, with Romo following as the ninth closer about two rounds later. Over in Paul’s astute breakdown of relief pitcher tiers, Nathan checks in as a four-star option, while Romo leads the pack of three-star options. Let’s take a look at how they stack up, and see whether Nathan is really worth the slightly higher price on draft day.
Trying to predict the actual number of saves for a given reliever is generally a fool’s errand, and trying to use prior-season stats to do it is an even worse idea. Still, there are some basic numbers we can look at to inform context. Last season Detroit won 17 more games than San Francisco with an even more impressive plus-234 run differential over the Giants. Despite the massive statistical advantage, though, the Giants’ run-starved offense created an environment just as nurturing for save opportunities as the high-octane Tigers. Detroit relievers were 39-for-55 in save opportunities, while San Francisco relievers went 41-for-54. It’s not a perfectly helpful stat, given some of those blown saves were charged to setup men, but you get the idea: A good team does not necessarily provide more save opportunities.
What about the individual performances of the relievers in question? Well, Nathan’s saved a stellar 90.2 percent of his 378 career opportunities, while Romo’s hung right there with him at 89.7 percent since taking over closing duties in 2011, albeit in a much smaller 58-opportunity sample. Both men have produced elite conversion rates, and assuming a more or less even playing field of opportunity they’re both good bets to get you high-30s to low-40s save totals.
Nathan has managed to continue striking batters out at an elite rate into his late-30s, and that he’s managed to do so following Tommy John surgery that wiped out his age-35 season is nothing short of remarkable. Last year, he dramatically tweaked his pitch selection, discarding the curveball he’d utilized extensively in the immediate aftermath of his surgery and instead bombing hitters with a career-high percentage of sliders. The plot worked, as he was able to offset an almost two mile-an-hour drop in fastball velocity and hold his strikeout rate above 29 percent. And speaking of sliders, Romo’s got a pretty good one that he’s not shy about showing off. He actually dialed his usage of the pitch down to only 52 percent last year, per PITCHf/x, which was down from almost 64 percent in 2012. It’s been the second-best slider thrown by a reliever in each of the past two seasons and hasn’t really shown any signs of slowing down. Hitters appear to have begun recognizing this, however, as the odd occasions when Romo did throw his fastball in the zone resulted in a significantly higher contact rate last year. That in turn helped knock his strikeout rate all the way down to 23 percent (career 29 percent), and it will remain to be seen if Romo is able to adjust next season. I’m not comfortable predicting a continuation of an elite strikeout rate for Nathan given his age and clearly declining stuff, but he probably deserves a slight nod here given his lengthy track record and uncertainty about Romo’s ability to adjust and find his lost whiffs.
Slight Advantage: Nathan
In addition to helping his declining fastball play up within the zone, Nathan’s slider-happy ways last year had a second added benefit: he got batters to make weaker contact with significantly more pitches out of the zone, as he saw his year-to-year O-Contact percentage rise a staggering 10 percent from 2012. That, coupled with some exquisite luck in the HR:FB department, led to Nathan logging a miniscule 1.39 ERA in 2013. His 2.29 FIP, while still excellent, paints a slightly less-rosy picture, and seems a more appropriate dream scenario starting point for Nathan going forward. His career-low .224 BABIP should set off some flashing red lights and temper expectations for even that kind of performance in 2014, however. A bump back up closer to his career levels, coupled with some control issues that I’ll discus below, could spell trouble pretty quickly for Nathan.
Romo posted a 2.54 mark last season that similarly outpaced his 2.85 FIP. His decline in strikeouts led to more balls in play, but that outcome was less damaging than it could’ve been thanks to an anomalous-looking leap in infield-fly-ball rate. If his strikeouts don’t come back and that number regresses to the norm it’ll make a return to his days of posting sub-2.00 ERA’s all the more unlikely. Still, Romo’s 2.54 mark last year is the highest he’s ever put up outside of a freak 34 innings in his second season where he endured a BABIP 67 points above his career average and only managed to strand two out of every three runners. He also has a significant ballpark advantage, as he pitches in the best pitching park in the game. While Nathan will receive a nice boost switching addresses from Texas to Michigan, there are just too many warning lights flashing to expect another year of elite ERA production. It’s awfully tough to bet against his track record, but age and collapse potential are very real risk factors for Nathan. I’ll bet on a bounce back from Romo to take this one narrowly.
Slight Advantage: Romo
I’ve discussed a couple warning signs for Nathan so far, but one that should not be overlooked is the step back his control took last year. His walk rate jumped by almost four percent, as he threw less first pitch strikes and generally worked in the zone less often. Part of that relates to the pitch selection adjustments he made, but it’s a telling sign of a pitcher who is losing his fastball. That problem is likely to get worse, not better, and a regression towards his career BABIP norm coupled with a climbing walk rate is an awfully dangerous combination. Romo’s walk rate is exceptional, on the other hand, and he actually suffered a slightly unlucky season last year on balls in play. His career WHIP is 0.17 below Nathan’s, and I like him significantly more to provide a better WHIP in 2014 over a comparable number of innings.
These guys should have two of the longer leashes of all closers heading into the season. Nathan just signed a fairly large free agent deal with Detroit, and aside from former potential closer Bruce Rondon there doesn’t appear to be a clear-cut no. 2 option in the Detroit bullpen to threaten him. Things are slightly murkier for Romo, but not much. Santiago Casilla saved 25 games in 2012 as the Giants’ first choice to take over closing duties when Brian Wilson went down, but Romo subsequently supplanted him. If Romo faltered severely Casilla would likely get the first crack at reprising the role, but stellar performance by the latter will not be enough in and of itself to push the issue. The Giants will also have trained closer Heath Hembree in their ‘pen. Hembree has been bred as a closer from the get-go, saving 81 games in his minor league career. But he’s struggled to harness his stuff at times and at 25 has never quite made the leap into becoming the out and out dominant reliever the Giants hoped he may become. Still, he’s another potential if Romo falters.
The inherent job security risk is what it is with closers. I’m going to call this one a draw given that neither of these closers will be challenged for their job unless they blow up pretty badly or go down with an injury. The Giants have a deeper stable of options, but there’s no reason to believe Romo will be in any significant danger barring meltdown.
Nathan underwent Tommy John surgery that knocked him out for all of 2010, and many moons before that he underwent a shoulder procedure back in 2000. The bigger issue is that he’s 39 years old, and in the non-Mariano Rivera world that’s relatively unchartered waters for an elite closer. Romo’s missed some significant time in the past with elbow issues, most notably the first two months of the 2009 season with a sprained ligament (no surgery). He’s also dealt with some knee issues that forced back-to-back DL stints in 2012. Still, almost by default you have to side with Romo here, as the risk factor of a 39-year-old reliever with Nathan’s mileage is just that much higher.
Nathan’s facial hair belies his consistency as a closer, as he’s rocked a trademark goat patch with striking regularity dating back to his debut with the Giants around the turn of the century. It’s alright and all, but it’s a look your Uncle Jimmy sports sometimes over the holidays. Jimmy’s an alright guy and all, but that facial hair just doesn’t do him any favors and you’d probably respect him more without it. Romo, by contrast, has demonstrated an impressive and shape-shifting palate over the years. He’s found success with the soul patch (2010), the Brian Wilson (2011), the mutton chop/chin strap dual threat (2012), and most recently an absurd rounded, flared soul patch that no regular man would ever wear in public under any circumstances (2013). If I’m drafting a closer I want him to take all aspects of his job seriously, and that includes Chia Pet experimentation with his whiskers.
Big Advantage: Romo
Romo comes in to “El Mechon” by Banda MS, a jumping polka-infused Mexican banda tune from the group’s 2008 debut record. This song is just straight up catchy as hell, and what it lacks in intimidation factor it more than makes up for by setting crazy high expectations for a raucous post-game victory celebration to come. Nathan enters to this. Yes, that’s a song by a fake hair metal movie band.
Advantage: Not only does Romo win this category, but I’m also docking Nathan a point for making me click that link and listen to over a minute of that song.
While Nathan has been one of the most impressive models of closer consistency over the years it is awfully difficult to look at his 2013 campaign and not see some signs that it may have been his last hurrah as an elite closer. His shiny surface stats—particularly that luxurious ERA—covered up some troubling under-the-hood trends that speak to Father Time doing what he does. When you add up the significant decline in velocity, some helpful luck on balls in play, and a career low homerun rate, and then on top of that remember he’ll pitch this season at age 39, you come up with a profile that does not feel particularly comfortable to invest in. Romo is not without his own question marks, as his strikeout rate took a substantial hit last season and he’s no spring chicken himself. But given the mid-round cost associated with grabbing one of these safely-installed closers I’d feel much more comfortable tabbing Romo a couple of rounds later than banking on one last One Last Hurrah by Nathan.
And the winner is… Sergio Romo
Wilson Karaman is an author of Baseball Prospectus.
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