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March 9, 2010

Between The Numbers

The Cost of Joe Nathan's Injury

by Russell A. Carleton

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Attention Twin Cities drugstores: Stock up on antacid. In the biggest news of spring training so far, Minnesota Twins closer Joe Nathan has been diagnosed as having a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. We've already looked at this from a fantasy perspective, so now it's time to analyze how this will affect the Twins.

Before today, the American League Central looked like a two-horse race between the Twins and the Detroit Tigers. With Nathan out, it's hard to see the Twins contending. Nathan, who turned 35 in November, was once again slated to be the steady hand at the back of the Twins' bullpen. He's saved at least 36 games in each of the past six years, and has been as good as just about any other closer in baseball during that time.

Most saves (since 2004)
Joe Nathan 246
Mariano Rivera 243
Francisco Rodriguez 241
Trevor Hoffman 239
Francisco Cordero 225

So, how bad is the loss of Nathan? Well, there are two related, but separate, costs that Twins fans need to worry about. Manager Ron Gardenhire now has to figure out Nathan's replacement on the roster. He'll be a guy who, unless the Twins make a trade, otherwise would have started the year in Triple-A or on the waiver wire. Over the past few years, Nathan has consistently posted WARP3 scores around 6.0 (meaning he was six wins better than the average guy in Triple-A or on the waiver wire), and there's no reason to believe that this year would have been any different. Those six wins last year would have completely rewritten the story of the AL Central, from a neck-and-neck race to the end to the Tigers clinching in the last week and resting up before meeting the Yankees in the ALDS. Nathan makes that much of a difference.

Highest Save Pct (since 2004 - min. 100 chances)
Mariano Rivera 93.1
Joe Nathan 90.8
Trevor Hoffman 89.8
Jonathan Papelbon 89.3
Bob Wickman 87.4

But then there's the other cost of Nathan's injury. Twins fans are probably not thinking about Nathan's direct replacement on the roster, but rather who will take over as closer in his absence. The likely candidates are Jon Rauch and Matt Guerrier, both of whom have their positives, but neither of whom is Joe Nathan. Over the past two seasons, Rauch and Guerrirer have each had a WARP3 hovering around 1.0. Fairly or unfairly, everything that happens in the ninth inning is magnified. Twins fans are used to having an elite closer to shut things down, and they now get to deal with the tummy ache that comes from knowing that a lesser pitcher is handling the last frame. There will no doubt be a few games where the new closer blows a lead and local sports radio lines will fill up with cries of, "Nathan would have saved that!" One thing to keep in mind, however, is that the average closer still converts roughly 85 percent of save chances, while Nathan has converted 90.8 percent of save opportunities for his career. If Guerrier and Rauch can convert saves at a league-average rate, Nathan's injury will be downgraded from a massive catastrophe to a medium-sized catastrophe.

Best ERA (since 2004, min. 300 IP)
Joe Nathan 1.87
Mariano Rivera 1.90
Billy Wagner 2.16
Francisco Rodriguez 2.46

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

13 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

jlefty

Assuming a replacement-level, um, replacement in the pen.. I'd think it would be important to note that everyone moves up one spot in the pecking order and will now find themselves in higher leverage situations than they would normally be in, had nathan not gotten injured, no?

Mar 09, 2010 18:05 PM
rating: 2
 
Brock Dahlke

I just can't take myelf to believe that a missing a reliever who pitches somewhere around 4% of a teams innings can take them out of contention. This is still one of the better teams in the league, one relief pitcher cannot change that.

Mar 09, 2010 18:43 PM
rating: 3
 
jtrichey

Agree. Obviously losing Nathan is a blow, and may be worth a few less wins. A few less wins may cost them the division but I'm not sure anyone would say it knocks them out of contention.

Mar 09, 2010 19:28 PM
rating: 0
 
DetroitDale

Dead Heat between Tigers and Twins Before Injury? What about the White Sox? I'm sure I saw previous BP projections had all 3 team neck and neck for the title of leper with the most fingers in the AL Central. Much as I wish it were otherwise, the Sox have more pitching and hitting depth. The Tigers changed a lot of faces but nothing to indicate ne net positive improvement on last year's offense that couldn't score in a whorehouse with Bill Gates' wallet, plus neither Bonderman nor Scherzer have looked good in camp so far and the Tigers are counting heavily on both. Nathan's loss is a blow to the Twins, but as Brock points out that's only about 4% of the team's innings and the thesis that importance of closers is over-hyped is a frequent BP staple. Don't forget the Twins pulled out last year's miracle with their second best hitter on the DL (I wish I could)

Mar 09, 2010 19:36 PM
rating: 3
 
thegeneral13

This is different than losing a nominal closer, it's losing one of the best relief pitchers in baseball and filling those high leverage innings with someone vastly inferior. The leverage creates a multiplicative impact, so pointing out that it's only 4% of the team's innings severely understates what the Twins are losing. Furthermore, the "closers are over-hyped" argument is that there's no mystique to closing and you are best off putting your most capable reliever in the highest leverage situations. In other words, the "position" of closer is over-hyped, but the existence of high leverage innings is real and having a lights-out reliever to pitch them is extremely valuable.

I still think the Twins are favorites for the division, but I also thought they were a 90 win team before this. I think it's a tighter race now, but Guerrier is pretty capable and the return of Neshek and presence of Slama provide a couple other options that should keep the bullpen from becoming a complete liability.

Mar 09, 2010 20:49 PM
rating: 4
 
Brock Dahlke

I have just been using the 4% argument to get all of my fellow twins fan off of the ledge today as most are freaking out.
But yes I do agree with pretty much everything you said. This surely will hurt the twins because its quite obvious Nathan was a dominant reliever, but this will not hurt the team nearly to the degree stated in this article or thought of by most twins fans.

Mar 09, 2010 20:54 PM
rating: 0
 
jrmayne

No one on this thread has talked about what the actual number of games cost is. Nathan figures to have generated about a 3.5 WPA. A workmanlike Fuentes 2009-level year is about 1 WPA, plus there's the loss that the new closer is replaced by Shiny New Pitcher To Be Named; that looks like a one-win difference. I'd say this is a 3-4 win loss, so it's time go bet even more heavily on the Indians at the ridiculous Vegas odds available. At the place the Twins are at - they look like an 85-win team or so - this is a bad injury. Nathan's a stud.

--JRM

Mar 10, 2010 07:03 AM
rating: 1
 
Brock Dahlke

I'd bet more heavily on the Royals before i'd go anywhere near the Indians.

Mar 10, 2010 09:41 AM
rating: 0
 
Dan

WARP3 is a poor tool to use here.

The guys who will take Nathan's leveraged innings are better than replacement level, so their WARP3 will increase with more leveraged innings if they simply repeat their overall performance level. When usage changes, WARP has very little predictive value for relievers (not that it had much to start with).

You have to take into account chaining in the bullpen. Nathan's replacement on the roster will be pitching very low leverage innings, meaning he'll have a negligible effect on the Twins' chances. What really matters are the other pitchers who are moving into more important roles.

Mar 10, 2010 09:34 AM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Colin Wyers
BP staff

"You have to take into account chaining in the bullpen."

Is this true?

I mean, I know a lot of people have accepted the idea. But where's the evidence?

Mar 11, 2010 12:36 PM
 
R.A.Wagman

I agree - chaining may be a possibility but not an inevitability.

Mar 11, 2010 13:10 PM
rating: 0
 
colintj

Isn't chaining just a model for the optimal strategy assuming no replacements are brought from outside the club? I suppose it assumes that managers like to use roles instead of some kind of best-at-any-one time calculation, but either model would be a preferable alternative than just citing his WARP3. WXRL exists, right? 6 wins is just not what he's going to be worth. The Twins are paying him 11.25MM, which means we should expect the answer to be in the 2-4 win range. Sky's article on Insider using chaining found he'd be worth 2.6 WAR. CHONE projects him for 3.3 WAR. 6 is twice that and suggests he should be paid like Chase Utley.

Why did Pizza use WARP3 at all? BP has an in-house metric that makes way more sense to use, not to mention that all other reasonable estimates differ wildly from WARP3. I don't know what PECOTA projected since he's not on the depth chart anymore and there's no line on his PECOTA card, but you can still see his projected WXRL for 2009 and 2010 from the '09 PECOTA.

2009: 3.1 WXRL
2010: 2.6 WXRL

2.6, which just so happens to coincide with what Sky found. Here's the link:

Isn't chaining just a model for the optimal strategy assuming no replacements are brought from outside the club? I suppose it assumes that managers like to use roles instead of some kind of best-at-any-one time calculation, but either model would be a preferable alternative than just citing his WARP3. WXRL exists, right? 6 wins is just not what he's going to be worth. The Twins are paying him 11.25MM, which means we should expect the answer to be in the 2-4 win range. Sky's article on Insider using chaining found he'd be worth 2.6 WAR. CHONE projects him for 3.3 WAR. 6 is twice that and suggests he should be paid like Chase Utley.

Why did Pizza use WARP3 at all? BP has an in-house metric that makes way more sense to use, not to mention that all other reasonable estimates differ wildly from WARP3. I don't know what PECOTA projected since he's not on the depth chart anymore and there's no line on his PECOTA card, but you can still see his projected WXRL for 2009 and 2010 from the '09 PECOTA.

2009: 3.1 WXRL
2010: 2.6 WXRL

2.6 just so happens to coincide with what Sky found in the aforementioned article. Link here

http://insider.espn.go.com/blog/tmi-mlb/post?id=697&blogName=tmi-mlb&sort=oldest

Mar 13, 2010 18:37 PM
rating: 0
 
colintj

i dn why that doubled...but uh. you know.

Mar 13, 2010 18:38 PM
rating: 0
 
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