We didn’t get far along talking Minnesota Twins baseball on the "Sports Talk" radio program on WDAY 970-AM on Thursday before a couple of callers started asking, "What’s wrong with closer Joe Nathan?" or "Does Joe Nathan make you nervous too?"
Now, before entering into such a discussion, I think a couple of facts have to be acknowledged from the get-go:
- Any ninth-inning save situation is going to be a nail-biter. That comes with the territory, so you’re always going to be nervous, whether it’s Eddie Guardado closing it out or Cy Young himself.
- Nathan is one of the premier – if not the premier – closers in the game. Really, who else is in his class? Mariano Rivera. Jonathan Papelbon. Jonathan Broxton. That’s about it. And I’m not sure I wouldn’t take Nathan over any of those guys. I probably would.
As far as Nathan goes, most people who wonder whether or not he’s at his best – including myself – point to the 53-pitch outing he had against the Kansas City Royals on Aug. 21 as the beginning of his so-called troubles. It was a brutal outing, but only by Nathan’s standards: 2 IPs, 4 Hs, 1 ER, and ultimately, a blown save. And that’s a lot of pitches by Nathan’s standards, too.
The numbers dating back to Aug. 21 are: 16 games, 16.1 innings, 13 Hs, 7 ERs, 10 BBs, 22 Ks.
Not too shabby, really. Only two blown saves, including the Aug. 21 appearance. That’s good for a 3.86 ERA over that stretch, which is about a run higher than his career ERA, but still nothing to sound the alarms over. And 22 strikeouts in 16.1 innings? Well, it’s tough to beat that.
If any two numbers over those 16 appearances stand out to me, it’s the 10 walks and the four homers allowed.
- First, the walks. That’s roughly 5.5 walks per 9 innings, much higher than his career average of 3.5 BBs/9 IPs. In none of his previous three seasons, he’s reached 20 walks in a season, so 10 in 16 appearances is much higher than Twins fans are used to.
- And for Nathan to give up four homers in 16 games is unusual, too. On average, he’s given up just four homers per season in his previous five seasons. He’s given up six this season now, his highest total since joining the Twins in an offseason trade prior to the 2004 season.
Back to the question, "What’s wrong with Joe Nathan?" Well, there’s definitely some trends in his recent performances that by his standards are unusual. In this 16-game stretch, he’s given up a season’s worth of homers and issued walks at a 60 percent higher clip than he normally does in his career.
There are a number of possible explanations for this. He could just be suffering from fatigue, or maybe there’s something mechanically wrong. Some suggest his confidence is shaken, but I think he’s wiggled out of far too many jams for that to be the case. Let’s remember, he’s only blown two saves in those 16 games. And it’s quite possible too that nothing is wrong with him, that maybe it’s just an anomaly.
But Nathan, even when he’s not at his best, is still better than 90 percent of the closers in baseball.