Comeback Player of the Year Candidate: Joe Nathan

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The 2011 Texas Rangers season ended with issues and questions at the closer position. The 2012 Texas Rangers season began with uncertainty about whether those questions had been answered. As the end of the 2012 season draws near, it is becoming increasingly obvious that those questions have been entirely dismissed, thrown out on account of irrelevance.

When the Rangers signed Joe Nathan in the offseason, it accomplished multiple objectives. It positioned Nathan as the team’s closer, obviously, but it also gave the team an additional starter, as Neftali Feliz could be moved to the rotation. The Nathan signing took place in November, which was scoffed at as being too early in the offseason by many, as relievers tend to get cheaper as the winter progresses. However, making that signing early allowed Feliz to prepare for his role as a starting pitcher, and it also enabled the Rangers to lock up Nathan with less competition, signing him to a two-year, $14.5 million deal.

For a pitcher that was coming off of 2010 Tommy John surgery, and a 4.84 ERA in 2011, the price tag seemed steep. Now, it looks like one of the best bargains of the offseason.

The recovery time for Tommy John surgery for pitchers is often quoted as being 12 months. While that is usually when a return to normal throwing activities is possible, the reality is that it typically takes an additional six months before a pitcher is fully back to his original form. Joe Nathan had his Tommy John surgery on March 26, 2010. His 18-month mark was near the end of the 2011 season, and that is when the Rangers began to see the pre-surgery Joe Nathan begin to appear again.

The investment made in Nathan by the Rangers has reaped magnificent rewards in 2012. Nathan has a 2.35 ERA, with 10.99 SO/9, 1.41 BB/9, and 33 saves in 34 opportunities. Nathan hasn’t blown a save since April 11th, rattling off 31 in a row. Nathan is tied for 9th in MLB in saves, but his 97% save percentage in 2012 trails only Huston Street, who hasn’t pitched the full season. As he has been for most of his career, Nathan has been near perfect as the anchor in the Rangers bullpen, which ranks sixth in the American League in ERA. Nathan is also now the all-time leader in save percentage, registering a career 89.91% mark, besting Mariano Rivera’s 89.28%. Nathan would have to blow three straight saves for his career mark to fall below Rivera’s.

The 37-year old Nathan appeared to be tiring at the end of July and his first two appearances in August, as he gave up four runs in back-to-back outings against the Los Angeles Angels. However, a couple of days later, he was given a cortisone injection to deal with some shoulder inflammation that was caused by throwing 61 pitches in those two appearances, and since then he has been like a new man. Post-cortisone injection, Nathan has pitched 14 innings, giving up just one run on eight hits and a walk, and has struck out 19.

Nathan has only provided any reason for doubt in the two outings leading up to the cortisone injection, and in his first four appearances of the season, in which he picked up two losses. If you were to remove those two periods of time, Nathan has a 1.23 ERA this season. His fastball velocity has averaged 94.6 MPH, significantly up from 93.12 MPH in 2011.

The Rangers have been used to a closer with a good fastball, however, and even more impressive than Nathan’s fastball have been his secondary pitches. Nathan has thrown his slider 24% of the time, and his curveball 15% of the time. Each pitch has been highly successful in generating swings-and-misses (21% whiff rate on the slider), or just changing a hitter’s eye level and timing system. In total, Nathan has thrown his off-speed pitches 39% of the time, and 67% have been for strikes. By comparison, as the Rangers’ closer in 2011, Feliz threw 23% non-fastballs, and threw them for strikes just 50% of the time.

The closer role was one of the biggest areas of concern for the 2012 Texas Rangers during the offseason and in Spring Training (when Nathan posted a 10.29 ERA). Now, it is one of the team’s most impressive strengths. The Rangers and Joe Nathan have been a perfect fit for each other, a fit that both parties will look to ride to their first World Series victory.

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