Wednesday, March 12, 2008

What to do with Joe Nathan

The save statistic is one of the worst statistics in baseball, up there with a win or loss for a pitcher, batting average, errors, and RBI. But that is another topic for another day. Today we’ll be examining Joe Nathan.

Lets look at a better statistic. It is called Win Probability Added (WPA). It measures how much a player does to help his team win games. It comes from a list of probabilities from 30 years of MLB history. All situations are listed with a percentage of times that their team in that situation won. Example: if a team goes into the bottom of the eighth down a run they only have a 23% chance to win. So each player earns points by how much they help their team. If you are the leadoff batter and you get on base your team now has 31% chance to win. The batter gets 8 points difference and the opposing pitcher gets -8 points. Lets say the next batter hits into a double play then all of a sudden the team’s chances drop to 13% and he gets -18 points, while the pitcher gets 18 points.

So the leader in WPA over the last four years has been Joe Nathan. Yup he ranks higher than Johan Santana, Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, and Michael Cuddyer. He ranks higher because as the game ends every at-bat because a lot more valuable. Every time he goes in and gets a save he gets 13 points. 13% of the time a pitcher fails to do that. Nathan earns all those points because if he blows the lead then he loses about 87 points, and that will wipe out a lot of good innings.

Maybe we haven’t realized just how good Joe Nathan has been. Over the last four years he’s been the best closer in Twins history. He’s been in the all-star game, he’s finished in the top 5 of the Cy Young twice. He’s gone 19-8, with an ERA of 1.62, 2.70, 1.58 and 1.88 over those four years. And he’s accumulated 160 saves. Basically he’s been the best closer in baseball over the past 4 years.

The problem is that the closer market has gone crazy last year. Nathan is in his last year of the current contract with the Twins and he can test the market next year. So the Twins have a few options. They could sign him to a long term deal now, they can trade him now, they can trade him at the trade deadline, or they can let him walk after this season. Judging by the current contracts given to closers like a $46 million 4 year contract to Francisco Corder or even Eric Gagne earning $10 million this year, Nathan could command a lot more than that. The Twins could afford it, but I don’t think it is wise as they are not huge contenders right now and they shouldn’t pay $17 million a year for someone who pitches 70 innings a year. My pick is to trade him at the trade deadline to a team who is desperate for a top of the line closer and get two top prospects in return. It just wouldn’t be wise for a low budget team that is trying to be contenders in 2010 to pay that amount of money to a closer, especially when the Twins are excellent at making a top-notch bullpen. Pat Neshek would be an excellent closer should the Twins decide to part with Nathan.

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