Jesse Johnson-US PRESSWIRE
Jim Farley takes a closer look at Texas Rangers closer Joe Nathan.
Joe Nathan is the definition of a "seasoned vet". Entering his 13th season, the 38 year old righty has the grey hair and TJS scar you'd expect from a relief pitcher with that many miles on the pedometer. While getting out of bed may be more of a struggle these days, pitching still doesn't appear to be a problem for Mr Nathan. Nathan finished the 2012 season ranked as the 9th best relief pitcher (excluding RP eligible starters Kris Medlin and Chris Sale) on ESPN's Player Rater after posting a smouldering line of 3 W / 37 S / 78 K / 2.80 ERA / 1.06 WHIP. Entering 2012 there might have been some reservations over whether Nathan could survive the Texas heat and/or hold off the staple of closer-capable arms in the Rangers bullpen. Not only did the grizzled Texan answer those questions, but in the process he turned in one of the better seasons of his career.
When it comes to relief pitchers I tend to draft skill over role. I'm not one to "pay for saves", especially given the volatility of the closer position in recent years. Guys get injured (see Rivera, Mariano). Guys struggle and lose their jobs (see Walden, Jordan). I typically avoid spending a high pick and/or sinking a significant portion of my draft budget on a closer(s). I'm risk averse. Sure, Craig Kimbrel might turn in another historic campaign in 2013, but he could also blow out his elbow in the Braves fourth game of the season. The shelf-life of most relief pitchers is about as long as the shelf-life of a gallon of milk (with the exception of Mariano Rivera, but I've heard rumors that he's a robot so I toss him out as an outlier). Instead, I draft skills and hope for the best. By doing so, I have to pay Jason Bourne-like attention to the closer roles of each team throughout the season. Additionally, I need to be smart with my waiver claims and FAAB bidding. Monitoring all those teams takes time, but I'm someone who would rather build a strong portfolio of offensive talent and worry about saves later. In my opinion offense is more scarce than pitching and quality pitching always comes into the league each year. Worst case scenario, if the wire is desolate I can always trade from my offensive surplus if I have trouble finding saves. This isn't a strategy for everyone, but that's how I like to build my teams.
Ignoring the fact that Nathan has the closer role heading into the 2013 season, let's evaluate him from a skills perspective. I ignore most surface stats (i.e. ERA, Saves) and look at the underlying numbers as they're more indicative as per a pitcher's true skill. Surface stats like ERA and saves can fluctuate substantially from year to year depending upon a number of external factors out of a pitcher's control (save opportunities, the quality of the defense behind him, etc.).
Last season, Nathan posted a K/9 of 10.91, an average fastball velocity of 94.0 mph (best since 2007), a career best O-Swing% of 33.4% (percentage of pitches a batter swings at outside the strike zone), and a SwStr% of 12.2% (percentage of strikes that were swung at and missed). Between the mid-90s heat, 10+ K/9, and swing rates, Nathan's stuff appears to have been as nasty as ever last season.
Nathan's batted ball profile of 22/45/33 (LD/GB/FB) was solid as well. I tend to value pitchers with higher ground ball rates as it's difficult to surrender homeruns if you're consistently keeping the ball on the ground. Nathan's groundball rate of 45% fits that profile (GB rates over 50% are typically characteristic of groundball pitchers) and allows for Nathan to take advantage of the plus defenders behind him (Adrian Beltre and Elvis Andrus) as well as mitigate some of the Arlington park factors (venue yielded the 4th most runs in 2012). The jump in his line drive rate is a little concerning (17.8% to 21.5%), however, he dropped his fly ball rate from 47% to 33% last season, which I'll sign up for every day of the week.
During his peak Nathan showed the ability to strand runners in the 80-85% range so last season's 78.1% doesn't scream regression in my opinion (league average strand rate is around 70%) given the groundball rate and high percentage of strikeouts (33.4%). From a BABIP perspective Nathan checked in right around league average having posted a .306 BABIP in 2012. Historically Nathan averaged a BABIP around .250 so if his 2013 BABIP regresses to his career norm there is potentially room for some ERA improvement.
Focusing on Nathan's FIP (Fielding Independent Pitcher), xFIP (Expected Fielding Independent Pitcher), and SIERRA (Skill Independent ERA), Nathan posted metrics of 2.78, 2.60, and 2.16 respectively, all which were below his ERA of 2.80. What that tells me is Nathan pitched better than his ERA indicates and gives confidence that Nathan can duplicate a sub-3 ERA next season (note: all three metrics more accurately correlate with future ERA, SIERRA representing the highest correlating metric of the trio).
By all indications Nathan was as good as ever last season. Despite his advanced age, he is still a very skilled pitcher. If you're targeting a closer Nathan is a worthy candidate given the combination of skill and role heading into 2013. Fake Teams gave Nathan a consensus ranking of sixth and that feels about right. I might even move him up a few spots given his track record and performance last season. Grab your lasso and rope him up partner. Nathan should be great in 2013. Ye-ha!