Minnesota Twins: Joe Nathan falling off the ballot is a loss for MLB
By Mason Keith
The 2022 MLB Hall of Fame voting has finished and we have our final answers, with David Ortiz as the lone candidate being inducted into Cooperstown. Ortiz’s greatest day was overshadowed by the presence of controversy within voters’ credibility, as there were several key players who were knocked off the ballot, including former Minnesota Twins closer Joe Nathan.
Ortiz should have been able to celebrate with those close to him. Too bad, no one seemed to care since Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Curt Schilling, and Sammy Sosa all got knocked off the ballot after ten long years. But what if there is a bigger shadow looming over this entire day? One that has not much attention, but may do the most damage to MLB’s Hall of Fame voting process?
A Minnesota Twins Hall of Famer, but apparently not enough for the MLB.
Joe Nathan getting less than 5% of the votes is being blanketed by the larger than life images of Bonds or Clemens, but carries much more weight. Relief pitchers are easily the most under-represented position in the Hall of Fame and has many generational talents looming in the dark waiting for their beam of light.
Mariano Rivera entered as the only unanimous player in MLB history, which should have opened a gate for more. Instead, it created such a hole that it seems voters only want relievers in the echelon of THE greatest. So what does it take to reach these expectations? Maybe a change of perception.
Cooperstown is losing its honor because of how under represented the museum actually is. Several positions are lacking quality representation because of dated benchmark stats that are used as a judgment device. One key position that is underrepresented is relief pitching.
How do you determine a Hall of Fame pitcher? “They do not pitch very many innings, so they do not have cumulative stats equaling the effectiveness of a starter.” This mindset is stumping voters into only taking one stat into consideration: Saves.
The main reason relievers are in the Hall of Fame is because they held the all time saves record during their respective eras. Lee Smith held it in the early 90s (The Veterans Committee voted him in), Trevor Hoffman got in because he had the all time record for a very short time, and then Mariano Rivera took the crown for good.
Mariano deserves to be a unanimous pick. He was unearthly dominant and is an all time great. So does this mean every position should only be represented because they had all time records during their playing careers?
With this logic, Willie Mays isn’t a Hall of Famer. Well what if you base it off of overall cumulative stats? Then you get mostly starting pitchers since they have more innings pitched. With this logic, an above average starter like C.C Sabathia is far more of a Hall of Famer. So why can’t above average relievers get in? Or even dominate ones from their respective eras?
Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman were the best of the best. Everybody knew them, everybody feared them. But there are 28 other teams that have closers. Many of those teams have closers who were automatic All-Star pitchers year in, year out. Two guys come to mind that fit that mold and did it enough to have Hall of Fame careers: Billy Wagner…..and Joe Nathan.
Let’s start with Billy Wagner. It is safe to say that Billy Wagner is the best left handed reliever in MLB history. His 11.9 SO/9 is the best for any reliever. His 2.31 ERA (187 ERA+) is the second lowest of all time, behind the staple Rivera.
He is sixth all-time in career saves with 422. This kind of stat line rivals Trevor Hoffman, and you can even say is better than Hoffman. Wagner cannot be an “above average” reliever when his stats are better than the one-time saves leader Hoffman. So what can be the benchmark for relief pitchers that reach Cooperstown? The answer is Joe Nathan.
Joe Nathan theoretically is a top ten closer in MLB history. He ranked 8th all time in saves (377) and first all time for the Minnesota Twins. From 2004-2013, he was second only to the staple Mariano Rivera in WAR. His 151 ERA+ is third all-time behind Mariano and Billy Wagner. He also finished top 5 in the AL in saves seven times during his career.
What hurts both Nathan and Wagner is innings pitched. That is a problem, only if you stick to the current mindset. FanGraphs does a fantastic job showing how both of these relievers, given the fact they didn’t pitch as much as an inner circle hall of famer, were dominant in high leverage situations. Nathan ranked seventh in their table projection with a minimum of 1,000 innings pitched. In fact, he ranked higher than Billy Wagner AND Mariano Rivera.
With the 2022 Hall of Fame announcement going public, we get to see all the controversy at play. The steroid scandal will always take center stage and ruin any good moment for MLB. Too many big names flood this year’s ballot and the numbers are too artificial to determine who deserves recognition overt the other.
The darkest of shadows are the names that produced at a high level throughout their whole career but did it quietly enough to not get attention. Quiet enough to where many fall victim to the 5% rule and never get a fair shot again. Not only did steroid use impact playing careers, it also impacts hall of fame legacies.
Billy Wagner gets to see another day. With the steroid era starting to clean away from the ballots, players with non artificial numbers will finally be getting the attention they deserved. Scott Rolen, Todd Helton, Andrew Jones, and Billy Wagner will all see an increase in votes and voters will finally appreciate how dominant these players were during their careers.
But Joe Nathan will not get to see another day. Until voters recognize all positions equally with player production, Joe Nathan is just another great player who was and will always be underappreciated.