JAWS and the 2022 Hall of Fame Ballot: Joe Nathan by Jay Jaffe December 20, 2021 2022 BBWAA Ballot IntroTodd HeltonCrowdsource BallotScott RolenGary SheffieldDavid OrtizBilly WagnerAndruw JonesJimmy RollinsBonds, Clemens, Schilling, and SosaOmar VizquelBobby AbreuJoe NathanJeff Kent and Manny RamirezMark TeixeiraBuehrle, Hudson, and PettitteTorii HunterAlex RodriguezJay's 2022 BallotPrince FielderJustin MorneauRyan HowardA.J. PierzynskiCarl CrawfordJake Peavy The following article is part of Jay Jaffe’s ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2022 Hall of Fame ballot. For a detailed introduction to this year’s ballot, and other candidates in the series, use the tool above; an introduction to JAWS can be found here. For a tentative schedule and a chance to fill out a Hall of Fame ballot for our crowdsourcing project, see here. All WAR figures refer to the Baseball-Reference version unless otherwise indicated. The road to becoming a reliever, even a Hall of Fame one, is rarely a straight one. Dennis Eckersley spent a dozen years starting in the majors, making two All-Star teams and throwing a no-hitter. Hoyt Wilhelm, Rollie Fingers, Rich Gossage, and Lee Smith were starting pitchers in the minors, and each took detours to the rotation during their major league careers. Mariano Rivera was an amateur shortstop who reached the majors as a starter. Trevor Hoffman began his professional career as a shortstop before switching to pitching after two seasons. Like Hoffman, Joe Nathan began his pro career as a shortstop, but after one rough season of pro ball, the Giants concluded that his future lay on the mound — a notion so jarring to the 21-year-old Nathan that he chose to step away and focus on completing his college degree. Even after committing himself to pitching, injuries and ineffectiveness prevented him from finding a permanent home in a major league bullpen until his age-28 season, but once he did, he excelled, making six All-Star teams, helping his teams to six postseason appearances, and saving at least 30 games in a season nine times and at least 40 four times. From 2004 to ’13, only Rivera notched more saves or compiled more WAR, and only two other relievers struck out more hitters — and that was with Nathan missing a full year due to Tommy John surgery (Rivera missed most of a year in that span as well). With Hoffman, Rivera, and Smith elected in 2018 and ’19, the standards for a Hall of Fame reliever have become a bit more fleshed out, and current candidate Billy Wagner is trending toward election. To these eyes, Nathan wouldn’t be out of place in joining the small handful of enshrinees, but there’s no guarantee he’ll even draw the 5% needed to stay on the ballot. At the very least, he deserves a longer look. 2022 BBWAA Candidate: Joe Nathan Pitcher WAR WPA WPA/LI R-JAWS IP SV ERA ERA+ Joe Nathan 26.7 30.6 15.8 24.4 923.1 377 2.87 151 Avg HOF RP 39.1 30.1 20.0 29.7 SOURCE: Baseball-Reference Nathan was born on November 22, 1974 in Houston, Texas, but grew up in Pine Bush, New York. In 1986, he and future major league pitcher Matt Morris pitched their Wallkill Little League team to a District 19 championship berth in the state tournament. At Pine Bush High School, where he stood just 5-foot-7 as a sophomore but grew to 6-foot-1 by the time he graduated, Nathan played baseball and basketball and ran track. He drew interest only from Division III colleges and ended up at Stony Brook University because Pine Bush assistant coach Jeff Masionet and Stony Brook head coach Matt Senk played together at SUNY-Cortland. At Stony Brook, Nathan played shortstop and was a two-time Academic All-American. At the encouragement of Giants scout Alan Marr, who had a strong relationship with Senk, the now–6-foot-4 righty gave pitching another try and made three appearances in three games. After an intrasquad game to showcase his pitching was rained out, he held a throwing session for scouts to show them that pitching was a fallback option. “There was literally someone there from every organization, and all of their crosschecker scouts, too,” recalled Senk in 2005. “When I was able to watch him at shortstop and throw the ball across the diamond, it was about his arm action,” said Marr in 2008. “It looked like a pitcher. It was fluid. It was loose.” The Giants drafted Nathan in the sixth round in 1995, signing him for a comparatively meager $60,000 bonus. Playing shortstop for Bellingham of the Northwest League, he hit just .232/.320/.345 with three homers and committed 26 errors in 56 games. The following spring, the Giants told Nathan he would need to switch to pitching to continue his career; he balked, leaving the organization to return to Stony Brook to finish his degree in business management. While there, he worked out with the Stony Brook team, focusing on honing his pitching mechanics. Through Marr, he persuaded the Giants to let him return to the organization. Returning to the Northwest League via the Salem-Keizer Giants, Nathan began the 1997 season in the bullpen and finished in the rotation; his fastball topped 90 mph, he showed a good feel for a curveball, and his 2.47 ERA placed second in the league as he struck out 44 (but walked 26) in 62 innings. From there he advanced quickly, splitting the 1998 season between High-A San Jose and Double-A Shreveport, and ’99 between Shreveport, Triple-A Fresno, and San Francisco. Filling in for injured Giants starter Mark Gardner, he made his major league debut on April 21, throwing seven shutout innings against the Marlins, then went eight innings and allowed two runs against the Expos a week later. After spending most of May in the big league bullpen, he returned to the minors but rejoined the rotation in August, and finished the year with a respectable 4.18 ERA but much shakier 5.95 FIP in 90.1 innings; walks and homers (4.6 and 1.7 per nine, respectively) were a problem. Nathan spent 2000 bouncing between the Giants’ rotation and the injured list due to shoulder inflammation and tendinitis, finding only limited success; seven of his 15 starts were quality starts, but he walked more batters than he struck out and finished with a 5.21 ERA and 5.65 FIP in 93.1 innings. He didn’t pitch after September 11 due to recurrent shoulder pain, and that winter, he underwent surgery on his rotator cuff and labrum. He spent all of 2001 in the minors, getting rocked for a 7.29 ERA in 108.1 innings and at one point surrendering four consecutive homers in a Pacific Coast League game; his fastball bottomed out at 83 mph. “There’s no life on your fastball,” Nathan recalled in 2008. “But your offspeed pitches, there’s no bite on those either. There’s no sharp break, just kind of a lazy curveball, lazy slider. Everything you throw up there just seems to hang up there a little longer. Needless to say, I got my brains beat in for a solid year.” A routine of arm-strengthening drills helped Nathan restore his fastball velocity to 90 mph by season’s end. The Giants didn’t give up on him even as he spent nearly all of 2002 getting hit for a 5.60 ERA at Fresno; he did make four scoreless relief appearances in the majors in September but wasn’t part of the Giants’ postseason roster as they made their World Series run. By now a 28-year-old reliever, Nathan spent all of 2003 with the Giants and pitched well. In 78 appearances (fifth in the NL) he struck out 83 in 79 innings en route to a 2.96 ERA and 3.45 FIP, and helped the Giants win the NL West; alas, he took the loss in Game 2 of the Division Series against the Marlins, allowing three runs via a solo homer by Juan Encarnacion and a two-run double by Juan Pierre. In November, the Giants traded Nathan to the Twins in what turned out to be a steal for Minnesota, which received 20-year-old lefty prospect Francisco Liriano, who had placed 83rd on Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospects List that spring but had missed most of the season due to a recurrent lat strain; 22-year-old lefty prospect Boof Bonser, the Giants’ 2000 first-round pick; and Nathan in exchange for 27-year-old catcher A.J. Pierzynski, who was arbitration-eligible and about to be overtaken by 2001 first pick Joe Mauer. In Minnesota, Nathan took over the closer role and converted 44 of 47 save attempts (third in the league), posting a 1.62 ERA with 11.1 strikeouts per nine. He made his first All-Star team, helped the Twins win the AL Central, and led the league with 5.8 WPA while producing 3.9 WAR, third among all relievers behind only Rivera and Tom Gordon; he even tied for fourth in the AL Cy Young balloting, albeit on the basis of equalling Pedro Martinez and Francisco Rodríguez with a single third-place vote. In the Division Series against the Yankees, Nathan saved Game 1 but took the loss in Game 2, running out of gas in the 12th, his third inning of work. Though he came on to strand a runner at second base with one out in the eighth inning of Game 4 and held the Yankees scoreless through the ninth, they won in 11 innings, eliminating the Twins. After signing a two-year, $2.54 million extension in March 2004, Nathan built upon that a year later, inking a two-year, $10 million extension covering ’06 and ’07, with an option for ’08. He began the 2005 season with 15 consecutive scoreless appearances, striking out 17 but walking just one. While his overall ERA increased by more than a run over 2004 (to 2.70), his 2.21 FIP was in line with the previous year, and he again earned All-Star honors and saved 43 games in 48 attempts. The 2005 season would be the only one between ’04 and ’08 that Nathan’s ERA would top 2.00; it crept to 2.10 in ’09. For that six-year period (including ’09), he led all relievers in saves, strikeout rate, K-BB%, FIP, WPA, and WPA/LI and ranked second in WAR and ERA, which is to say that he had a reasonable case as the top reliever in baseball: Top Relievers 2004-09 Player IP SV K% BB% K-BB% ERA FIP WPA WPA/LI WAR Mariano Rivera 440.1 243 24.6% 4.6% 20.0% 1.90 2.56 22.5 11.5 24.4 Joe Nathan 418.2 246 31.7% 7.3% 24.4% 1.87 2.40 24.2 11.9 18.5 Jonathan Papelbon 298.0 151 29.2% 6.5% 22.7% 1.84 2.63 16.8 7.2 14.6 Francisco Rodríguez 428.0 241 31.1% 11.2% 19.9% 2.46 2.85 18.3 8.8 14.0 SOURCE: Baseball-Reference If you’re wondering about fWAR, Rivera — the heavyweight champion of relievers — had a 14.5 to 14.2 edge over Nathan during this span to go with his bWAR edge. Rivera also had an unparalleled body of postseason work that during this stretch included closing out a World Series for a fourth time, though some of that was a function of opportunity; it wasn’t Nathan’s fault that the Twins’ offense kept disappearing in October. My point here is to illustrate that for a substantial stretch, Nathan did a very Rivera-like job. Though he didn’t get an All-Star appearance or Cy Young vote out of it, Nathan’s best season during that run was in 2006, when he posted a 1.58 ERA and 1.68 FIP, striking out a career-high 12.5 per nine (36.3%) and converting 36 out of 38 saves. With Liriano and Bonser both making significant contributions as well, and with Johan Santana and Justin Morneau turning in award-winning seasons, the Twins won 96 games and the AL Central. For a change, they didn’t run into the Yankees, as they had in 2003 and ’04, and later would in ’09 and ’10; instead, they were swept by the A’s, with Nathan limited to two-thirds of an inning of work. The Twins missed the playoffs in 2007 and ’08 even as Nathan continued to excel. Prior to the latter season, he signed a four-year, $47 million extension that nearly doubled his exercised option from his previous deal and included a club option for ’12. He followed that big deal with a career-low 1.33 ERA and his third All-Star selection, while the Twins battled all the way to a Game 163 tiebreaker against the White Sox. By the time Nathan entered with two outs in the eighth inning, Minnesota was on the wrong end of a 1–0 game due to Jim Thome’s seventh-inning solo homer off starter Nick Blackburn, and the team failed to equalize in the top of the ninth. With Nathan saving a career-high 47 games (for a team that won just 87), the Twins landed in another Game 163 in 2009, this time against the Tigers. Nathan arrived to escape a two-on, one out jam in the eighth inning of a 4–4 game, plus another jam of his own making in the top of the ninth, and the Twins won in 12. His Division Series against the Yankees didn’t go so well after a 10-pitch save in Game 1. In Game 2, he blew a save by allowing a game-tying two-run homer to Alex Rodriguez in the bottom of the ninth; the Twins lost in 11. In Game 3, with the Yankees up 2-1 in the ninth, he entered with the bases loaded and allowed back-to-back singles that expanded the lead to 4–1; half an inning later, the Twins were eliminated. Alas, that would be the last that Twins fans saw of Nathan for awhile. After surgery to remove bone spurs and chips in his elbow in late October, he experienced significant pain in spring training, discovered that he’d torn his UCL, and underwent Tommy John surgery in late March, missing the entire season. His return was a mess; cuffed for a 7.63 in April and May, he quickly lost his closer’s job, but after spending a month on the IL due to elbow inflammation, he returned and stabilized his performance, regaining the ninth-inning job and finishing with a 4.84 ERA. Still, the Twins declined Nathan’s $12.5 million option, paying him a $2 million buyout and sending him to free agency for the first time just before his 37th birthday. He quickly landed a two-year, $14.75 million deal with the Rangers, who were fresh off back-to-back World Series losses and had designs on converting 23-year-old closer Neftali Feliz into a starter. Nathan made good on his deal by earning All-Star honors in both seasons, saving a total of 80 games and producing 5.0 WAR. His 2013 was the stronger campaign, featuring a 1.38 ERA, 2.26 FIP, and 3.2 WAR. The Rangers made it as far as the AL Wild Card Game in 2012; Nathan wasn’t much help, allowing two runs in the ninth with Texas trailing the Orioles, 3–1. He didn’t even get to pitch in the team’s Game 163 tiebreaker against the Rays the following year. A free agent once more, Nathan signed a two-year, $20 million deal with the Tigers, whose bullpen had proven to be a problem spot in October, and though he notched 35 saves as the team won the AL Central, he was hit for a 4.81 ERA. He made just a single four-pitch appearance in 2015 before being sidelined by what was initially believed to be a flexor strain. On the 10th pitch of his first rehab appearance, he felt a pop and tore both his UCL and his flexor pronator tendon. Retirement beckoned for the 40-year-old righty, but he resolved to undergo another Tommy John surgery, saying, “Hanging my cleats up never crossed my mind until that day that I have to.” As the end of his rehab approached, Nathan signed with the Cubs in May 2016 and immediately went on the 60-day IL, working toward a late July return. Despite his making three scoreless appearances, the Cubs DFA’d him in an early-August roster crunch. He caught on with the Giants and made half a dozen appearances for their Double-A affiliate and then seven for the big club in September, though they totaled just 4.1 innings. Still not ready to hang up his cleats, the 42-year-old righty signed a minor league deal with the Nationals, but after struggling for two months at Triple-A Syracuse, he was released. On September 2, he signed a one-day contract with the Twins and formally announced his retirement via a press conference; the team then honored him with a pregame video tribute and ceremonial first pitch. … While saves are hardly the be-all and end-all of relief pitcher quality, Nathan had seven finishes among his league’s top five and retired with a total of 377, which ranks eighth all-time. That said, Craig Kimbrel, who has 372, is poised to catch him soon, and Kenley Jansen, who has 350, could with one more year in the closer role. Even given that Nathan saved more games than four out of the eight enshrined relievers, they won’t be what gets him to Cooperstown, if anything does. Neither will longevity. Nathan’s 787 career games ranks just 57th all-time and is fewer than seven of the eight enshrined relievers, the exception being Bruce Sutter, though the former’s 923.1 innings is 118.2 still short of the latter’s total, the lowest among those eight. It’s not as though Nathan walked away early or slipped away to lounge in a hammock; he fought back through a major shoulder surgery that cost him most of two seasons, plus two Tommy John surgeries. By the way, those two TJs are double the total of all enshrined Hall of Fame pitchers, including starters; to date, John Smoltz is the only one who’s made it to Cooperstown after undergoing a UCL reconstruction. October baseball? Like Wagner, Nathan didn’t do all that well in his limited number of opportunities, with an emphasis on limited: He put up an 8.10 ERA, but in all of 10 innings spread out over six postseason series, each of which his team lost. Only in two series did he get to throw more than a full inning: five in the 2004 Division Series, and two in ’09. In three of his appearances, he entered in the top of the ninth with his team already down two runs, which rates as suboptimal usage. On the whole, it’s tough to ding him for too much here. Sticking simply to run prevention, adjusted for park and league, Nathan looks quite good. Of the pitchers who made the majority of their appearances as relievers and threw at least 800 innings, only Rivera (205 ERA+) and Wagner (187) were stingier than Nathan (151), though like Wagner, who threw just 903 innings, his problem is volume, and so too for the fourth-ranked Rodríguez (148 in 976 innings). The fifth-ranked Wilhelm, on the other hand, posted a 147 ERA+ in 2,254.1 innings, more than double the totals of Wagner, Nathan, or Rodríguez. Nathan is 19th in career WAR among relievers, 21st in peak WAR, and tied with Sutter for 17th in JAWS, ahead of just two of Hall of Famers, namely Hoffman (who’s tied with Wagner) and Fingers. As noted in my annual profiles of Wagner, I’ve never been entirely satisfied with the way that JAWS handles relievers, and over the years I’ve employed various hybrid metrics in an effort to find a balance between something descriptive (what does this say about who’s in the Hall?) and something prescriptive (what is this telling us about who should be in?). Upon bringing my Hall analyses to FanGraphs for the 2019 ballot, I began using one such hybrid in evaluating Wagner, and now, R-JAWS (Reliever JAWS) has been formalized at Baseball Reference in time for this election cycle. Clipping the description from my Wagner piece: While the version of WAR used in JAWS features an adjustment for leverage — the quantitatively greater impact on winning and losing that a reliever has at the end of the ballgame than a starter does earlier — to help account for the degree of difficulty, it’s not the only way to measure reliever value. Win Probability Added (WPA) is a context-sensitive measure that accounts for the incremental increase (or decrease) in chances of winning produced in each plate appearance given the inning, score, and base-out situation. For a reliever, single-season WPA scales similarly to single-season WAR, which is to say that it’s rare that one is worth more than three wins in a single year, by either measure. WPA can be additionally adjusted using a pitcher’s average leverage index (aLI) for a stat variably called situational wins or context-neutral wins (referred to as WPA/LI). Long story short, both of these are now in the sauce. R-JAWS is the average of a reliever’s WAR (including his time as a starter and as a hitter) as well as his WPA and his WPA/LI. Including those last two stats helps to elevate pitchers for what they did as relievers rather than as starters, which is what we’re after, because Hall voters generally aren’t geared towards recognizing swingmen or setup relievers. Not only can you can find R-JAWS on the aforementioned Baseball Reference Relief Pitcher JAWS Leaders page, it’s now the default method for sorting (you can still sort by WAR, WAR7, and JAWS as well). WPA makes a stronger case for Nathan than WAR does. Among pitchers who made at least 50% of their career appearances as relievers, Nathan’s 30.6 WPA ranks fifth, well below Rivera but much closer to Hoffman and Gossage and right in between Eckersley and Wilhelm, with Wagner next. Similarly, Nathan is eighth in WPA/LI (15.8) among most of the same names and seventh in R-JAWS, just below Wagner: Top Relievers by R-JAWS Rk Pitcher WAR WPA WPA/LI R-JAWS 1 Mariano Rivera+ 56.3 56.6 33.6 48.8 2 Dennis Eckersley+ 62.1 30.8 25.8 39.6 3 Hoyt Wilhelm+ 46.8 30.5 26.5 34.6 4 Rich Gossage+ 41.2 32.5 14.8 29.5 5 Trevor Hoffman+ 28.0 34.2 19.3 27.2 6 Billy Wagner 27.7 29.1 17.9 24.9 7 Joe Nathan 26.7 30.6 15.8 24.4 8 Firpo Marberry 30.4 26.3 17.3 23.8 9 Tom Gordon 35.0 21.3 14.5 23.6 10 Jonathan Papelbon 28.9 28.3 13.4 23.5 11 Francisco Rodríguez 28.9 24.4 14.7 22.7 12 Stu Miller 27.1 20.2 12.9 20.1 13 Craig Kimbrel 21.9 24.8 13.2 20.0 14 Ellis Kinder 23.3 23.6 11.7 19.5 15 Lee Smith+ 24.1 21.3 12.7 19.4 16 Tom Henke 22.9 21.3 13.9 19.4 17 Kenley Jansen 18.6 24.6 14.8 19.3 18 Dan Quisenberry 24.6 20.7 12.5 19.2 19 Rollie Fingers+ 25.6 16.2 15.1 19.0 20 Tug McGraw 21.8 21.5 13.1 18.8 21 Bobby Shantz 34.7 10.4 10.3 18.4 22 John Hiller 31.1 14.6 9.4 18.4 23 Bruce Sutter+ 24.5 18.2 11.9 18.2 24 Kent Tekulve 26.2 14.2 13.9 18.1 25 Keith Foulke 20.8 20.5 12.1 17.8 Hall avg w/Eckersley 38.6 30.0 20.0 29.6 Hall avg w/o Eckersley 35.2 29.9 19.1 28.1 SOURCE: Baseball-Reference + = Hall of Famer. R-JAWS is the average of WAR, WPA, and WPA/LI. My read of what this is telling us, is that while Nathan (and Wagner) were short on innings relative to other Hall of Fame relievers, they were not short on high-impact innings, and they performed well enough in that context to offset at least some of the deficit. Via B-Ref, Nathan faced 1,509 hitters in high-leverage situations (aLI > 1.5), and held them to a .200/.280/.312 performance; that .592 OPS is the lowest among pitchers with at least 1,500 PA, ahead of Wagner and Rivera, though both faced more batters in such situations: Relievers in High Leverage Situations Player BF AVG OBP SLG OPS Aroldis Chapman 1143 .164 .272 .258 .530 Kenley Jansen 1238 .181 .243 .286 .530 Craig Kimbrel 1220 .169 .266 .269 .535 Jonathan Papelbon 1450 .207 .269 .305 .574 David Robertson 1154 .189 .274 .302 .576 Alejandro Pena 1091 .220 .279 .303 .582 Joe Nathan 1509 .200 .280 .312 .592 Joakim Soria 1412 .215 .279 .318 .597 Billy Wagner 1780 .202 .280 .318 .598 Tony Watson 1094 .219 .277 .321 .598 Mariano Rivera 2567 .228 .279 .320 .598 Tom Henke 1493 .201 .276 .328 .604 Sergio Romo 1092 .218 .270 .334 .604 Mark Melancon 1175 .231 .289 .315 .604 Rich Gossage 3168 .218 .299 .307 .606 SOURCE: Baseball-Reference Minimum 1,000 batters faced in appearances where aLI > 1.5. The point is that not many pitchers have retained that kind of high-leverage effectiveness for as long as Nathan. Smith, who didn’t make the cut above, faced 2,646 batters in high-leverage situations and was hit at a .250/.318/.365 clip, and that’s in a lower-scoring era; likewise Sutter (.243/.306/.353 in 2,316 PA). What Nathan did wasn’t unprecedented, but it was pretty special, particularly when one considers all the roadblocks he surmounted. If I’m of the opinion that Wagner is worthy of a vote (and I am, as he was on my ballot last year and pulled in a 46.4% share overall), then I ought to be willing to vote for Nathan as well; the two aren’t separated by much in terms of R-JAWS, and they’re hardly out of place relative to the enshrined relievers. Wagner does own the distinctions of having the lowest opposing batting average and highest strikeout rate of any pitcher with at least 800 innings to go with his other numbers, which creates a bit more separation than what’s in the above rankings, in my eyes. Still, Papelbon, who’s on this ballot, isn’t far below in those rankings, either I know I don’t have room for all three on my ballot. I’m not entirely sure that I have room for two, and as I look at the Ballot Tracker, I can see that none of the 40 voters thus far has spared Nathan (or Paplebon) a spot on their ballots, where 23 out of 40 (57.5%) have for Wagner. With unlimited space, I’d at least include Nathan, but I’m already concerned that his may be a lost cause, and in the end, that could be a factor in whom I include in my final 10. We’ll see what the next wave of returns brings.