Joe Nathan Is A Bona Fide Hall of Fame Candidate

Photo Credit: Jordan Johnson (USA TODAY Sports)

This point in the winter is often considered a dead period in terms of Major League Baseball news. However, the current stalemate between the players and the league makes things that much worse, and there is no sign that it is ending soon.

So naturally, those who are missing the ballpark will turn to places like YouTube to look at old Minnesota Twins highlights as a way to pass the time until the weather warms up – or at least gets above freezing. The videos of choice could be anything from Harmon Killebrew blasts to the Twins’ World Series championships or Byron Buxton’s flashes of elite play. I’ve also watched some highlights from Twins of the early 2000s, including Torii Hunter, Michael Cuddyer, and Joe Nathan.

It’s a great feeling to see these former Twins who were big pieces to their success in that era get recognized by the team for their efforts. But that could be the end of it because of the high standard getting into the Hall of Fame requires. Even though they were great Twins, few players crossed the threshold to get into Cooperstown. While it doesn’t seem like the voters would go the way of letting the former Twins position players on the ballot, there is a much more convincing case for Nathan to get his name enshrined.

At first glance, this may look like a case of homerism. But Nathan, a six-time All-Star, built an impressive resume during his career. Nathan may not have gotten the recognition he would have playing for the New York Yankees or Los Angeles Dodgers, but he has the body of work that an HOF’er needs.

Nathan is one of the more under-the-radar additions to the Hall of Fame ballot. Twins fans remember his dominant arm over the years that closed the door during one of the team’s most dominant runs during that time. He famously started as a shortstop in the minors before moving to the mound. He was initially a starter in the Giants farm before switching to the bullpen. The Twins acquired him in the A.J. Pierzynski trade along with Boof Bonser and Francisco Liriano after the 2003 season, and Nathan became a fixture of the back end of the bullpen.

He finished his career with a 2.87 ERA in 923.1 innings pitched while racking up 377 saves. Two hundred sixty of them came in a Twins uniform, which is still the most in team history. Attacking the strike zone with his fastball and slider made Nathan one of the best pitchers in his era on a team that consistently reached the postseason.

Nathan was one of the biggest names and most adored Twins. Especially considering how bare those bullpens used to be without him. And let’s not forget his roles in some great Twins commercials during that time.

Most Twins fans are familiar with what Nathan had to offer, especially those who watched him dominate all those years. There was no shortage of national praise for his pitching performance during the peak of his career. Nathan’s best stretch of baseball was from 2004-09, when he kept his ERA under 2.00 in all but two of those seasons and had a WHIP that never went north of 2.00. In that stretch, he earned four All-Star appearances in six seasons and received some Cy Young and MVP votes both in 2004 and 2006.

But his production dropped after injuries, including removing bone chips in his elbow after the 2009 season and Tommy John surgery in the spring of 2010, kept him out of that season. Poor play briefly kept Nathan out of the closer spot in 2011, thanks to a 7.63 ERA in the first two months of the season that would be his last in a Twins uniform. Nathan went on to have some successful playoff runs pitching for the Texas Rangers and Detroit Tigers, notching two All-Star appearances in Arlington. The righty spent the final five seasons earning a 2.83 ERA and 2.93 FIP in 193.2 innings pitched.

Pitching for the Twins doesn’t exactly earn you ample amounts of national recognition from baseball fans at large. And it is even harder to do when you’re pitching during the same era as guys like Mariano Rivera, Trevor Hoffman, and Jonathan Papelbon, to name a few. Some Hall of Fame voters have given the nod to Nathan, which is a positive step in getting him in the Hall. Nathan’s name appearing on the ballot sheet alone has the baseball world looking at the Twins great once again.

His ability to pitch in high-leverage situations is another credit for Nathan. Anecdotally, Twins fans remember his big-time appearance in game 163 against Detroit in the 2009 season, where he recorded a career-high 47 saves. Baseball has a way of letting those moments determine how we think of a player, but the data shows he was reliable when it mattered most. Opposing batters only slashed at a .200/.280/.312 clip in high-leverage situations against Nathan, according to Hall of Fame voter Jay Jaffe, who gave the nod to Nathan for a trip upstate.

So what could keep him out? Nathan doesn’t have the longevity of some of the other all-time great closers like Rivera or Hoffman. Keep in mind that Nathan didn’t become a full-time closer until he was 29 years old in 2004. That means that his 26.4 bWAR is about 10 wins behind the other great closers. That shortcoming is made up for, though, in his WPA, which is at a Hall of Fame level clip.

He also doesn’t have much to show for his postseason numbers. But to be fair, the Twins haven’t exactly set up Nathan with great playoff opportunities either, considering the infamous losing streak. And only eight closers are currently in the Hall of Fame, with the latest additions being Rivera and Rosenthal. He may not have Rivera or Hoffman’s numbers, but Nathan was an elite-level closer.

Maybe Nathan will ultimately miss the Hall of Fame. But perhaps he gets more consideration from the voters now that he’s on the ballot and gets in the Hall. Regardless, his run of dominance shows that he’s not only Minnesota’s greatest closer but a closer who should have his name on a plaque in Cooperstown. Nathan’s play doesn’t put him in history as solely a Twins great but an all-time great who deserves to keep his name in Hall of Fame consideration.

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