The last big-league pitch Joe Nathan threw was an 86 mph, 1-2 slider to Torii Hunter on Opening Day of last season. Hunter checked his swing, got rung up by umpire Joe West for a game-ending strikeout, and argued his way into a meaningless ejection (followed by several days of the usual “Joe West is the worst” headlines). Detroit beat Minnesota, Nathan got his 377th career save, and two days later he was placed on the disabled list with an elbow injury that eventually required Tommy John surgery.
It was the second Tommy John surgery and third major arm surgery of Nathan’s career and at age 41 it seemed like the end of the line for the six-time All-Star closer, with a headline-grabbing one-out save against his former team and former teammate serving as a memorable final act. Instead, he rested and rehabbed, and last week Nathan signed a major-league contract with the Cubs that includes a spot on the 60-day disabled list until he’s ready to pitch again. As of now he’s aiming for early July.
Nathan wasn’t great for the Tigers before blowing out his elbow—posting a 4.78 ERA and 55/29 K/BB ratio in 58 innings—but having closely watched his entire Twins career it’s my duty to remind everyone of how great he was for a long time in Minnesota and later in Texas. Nathan at his best was as dominant as nearly any reliever in baseball history, and Nathan was at his best a lot. For instance, here’s a list of the pitchers since 1920 with the most seasons in which they threw at least 50 innings and posted an ERA below 2.00:
No one else has more than three such seasons, so the above group is two Hall of Famers, the best left-handed reliever of all time, and Nathan. If you’re into saves, Nathan has the eighth most in baseball history, and here’s a list of the pitchers with the most career 30-save seasons:
Of course, merely racking up saves isn’t always impressive on its own, so here are the all-time leaders in career regular-season save percentage among pitchers with at least 250 saves:
- 89.3% – JOE NATHAN
- 89.1% – Mariano Rivera
- 88.8% – Trevor Hoffman
That’s right: Nathan has the highest career save percentage in baseball history. You could win a few bar bets with that tidbit, assuming people at bars are banned from using Google these days.
And last but not least, here are the all-time leaders in regular-season Win Probability Added as relievers:
- 55.8 – Mariano Rivera
- 32.8 – Trevor Hoffman
- 31.7 – Rich Gossage
- 31.1 – JOE NATHAN
- 28.4 – Billy Wagner
For his career, his ERA+ of 150 is fourth all-time among pitchers with at least 700 relief appearances. The three names ahead of him are Rivera, Wagner, and Francisco Rodriguez. The three names directly behind him are Wilhelm, Hoffman, and Troy Percival. Among that same 700-appearance group he also ranks fifth in opponents’ batting average, sixth in strikeout rate, and ninth in strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Nathan is one of the 10 best relievers—closer or otherwise—in baseball history, and his 377 saves are especially remarkable considering he had exactly one career save through age 28, when the Twins acquired him from the Giants in November of 2003. Minnesota had 21-year-old Joe Mauer waiting in the wings, so they deemed 27-year-old starting catcher A.J. Pierzynski expendable entering his final season before free agency and sent him to the Giants in exchange for Nathan and a pair of pitching prospects named Francisco Liriano and Boof Bonser.
Pierzynski had a miserable first and only season in San Francisco, grounding into a league-high 27 double plays while his OPS dropped 100 points from the previous year. (He also allegedly kneed Giants trainer Stan Conte in the groin, if you’re into that type of thing.) Bonser was largely a bust, but Liriano developed into an elite, overpowering ace before blowing out his arm and Nathan—widely considered the least important aspect of the trade at the time—stepped into the closer role and saved 260 games with a 2.19 ERA in seven seasons for the Twins.
It was a brilliant move by the Twins back when general manager Terry Ryan used to make those sorts of moves. Minnesota had just lost closer Eddie Guardado and setup man LaTroy Hawkins to free agency, so the plan was for Nathan to step into one of those roles for a lot less money. He was originally a starter and had just one season of bullpen experience after the Giants moved him there full time in 2003 following his first Tommy John surgery. Actually, that’s not entirely accurate: Nathan was originally a shortstop.
Nathan was a star infielder at Stony Brook University in 1994 and 1995, hitting .391/.471/.698 with 13 steals, twice as many walks as strikeouts, and 85 RBIs in 73 total games. San Francisco picked him in the sixth round of the 1995 draft and assigned Nathan to low Single-A, where he hit .232 with 26 errors in 58 games. At that point the Giants tried to talk Nathan into pitching, but he balked at the idea and sat out the 1996 season. He later reconsidered, made his pitching debut back at low Single-A in 1997, and was tossing seven shutout innings for the Giants in his major-league debut two years later.
Nathan mostly struggled as a starter for the Giants in 1999 and 2000—although he did hit two homers—logging 184 innings with a 4.70 ERA and 115/105 K/BB ratio. He sat out 2000 following elbow surgery, spent most of 2001 and 2002 getting knocked around in the minors as a starter, and then rejoined the Giants as a full-time reliever in 2003. Nathan went 12-4 with a 2.96 ERA and 83/33 K/BB ratio in 79 innings as the primary setup man on a 100-win team, including a 1.59 ERA in the second half.
Many of the best closers in baseball history have interesting origin stories, in part because until very recently “closer” was not a role young pitchers began their careers filling. Mariano Rivera was originally a starter for the Yankees. Dennis Eckersley was a starter for a dozen years, winning 150 games and making multiple All-Star teams. Trevor Hoffman and Troy Percival began their careers as position players. Billy Wagner taught himself to throw left-handed after breaking his right arm twice as a kid. And there are plenty more where those came from.
Even within that collection of interesting paths to closer greatness Nathan’s story stands out. He was a star Division III shortstop who converted to pitching and made the majors as a starter only to struggle and blow out his elbow before shifting to the bullpen and being traded. Only then—at age 29 and with a new team that was overhauling its entire bullpen—did Nathan become a closer. He thrived immediately, saving 44 games with a 1.62 ERA and 89 strikeouts in 72 innings on the way to his first All-Star team and a fourth-place finish in the Cy Young award balloting.
So why, with the decade-long run of dominance outlined above, isn’t Nathan generally thought of as one of the elite relievers ever? The postseason. His teams made it to the playoffs seven times in his 13 full seasons, which is actually a lot. However, once there Nathan’s teams were eliminated in the first round (or the Wild Card game) every time. Some of that was out of Nathan’s control, as his teams had a 2-10 record in playoff games when didn’t even pitch. However, when he did pitch he was terrible.
Nathan has appeared in 10 playoff games, including at least one game for each of his four teams. In those 10 appearances he posted an 8.10 ERA, blowing two of his three save opportunities, taking two losses, and allowing multiple runs four times. He’s one of just 11 relievers with a career Win Probability Added of -1.0 or worse in the playoffs, and of that group only Nathan, Mitch Williams, and Armando Benitez also had a postseason ERA above 7.00. In other words, it wasn’t just one bad, WPA-crushing game.
Nathan turned a one-run Giants lead into a two-run Giants deficit in Game 2 of the NLDS in 2003, which perhaps played a role in San Francisco’s willingness to trade him a month later. Twice with the Twins he got beat in devastating fashion by Alex Rodriguez in game-changing spots against the Yankees, including a 10th-inning homer in 2009 that Minnesotans still have nightmares about. Nathan was fantastic for more than a decade and it’s unfair to toss that aside because he was terrible in a handful of postseason games, but unfortunately that’s how baseball often works.
Mariano Rivera would still be the greatest reliever of all time even if he’d never pitched an inning in the playoffs, but his spectacular postseason performance year after year is what elevated him to legendary status. Nathan was a great player for a dozen years, ranking right up there with any non-Rivera reliever in baseball history, but his postseason struggles keep him from being remembered as such. I’m not here to tell you whether that’s right or wrong. I just want to make sure everyone realizes how great Nathan was from April through September, and perhaps give you a reason to root not just for him to make it back this summer, but to make it back this fall.