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Mariano Rivera is amazing, but Joe Nathan is great too

Jul 17, 2013, 11:17 AM EDT

Yankees pitcher Rivera hugs Rangers pitcher Nathan after the American League defeated the National League in Major League Baseball's All-Star Game in New York Reuters

In order to guarantee that Mariano Rivera could make an appearance in his final All-Star game manager Jim Leyland used him in the eighth inning, which led to Joe Nathan closing out the win for the American League in the ninth.

That wasn’t quite ideal, although it didn’t seem to take away from the spectacular moment involving Rivera’s entrance and, of course, Nathan is a damn good pitcher too. In fact, Rivera and Nathan have been extremely similar in their long-term dominance.

Nathan took over as a closer after being traded from the Giants to the Twins in 2004. From then until now, here’s how their numbers compare:

                    G     SV    SV%     IP     ERA    SO/9   BB/9    OAVG
Mariano Rivera    577    355    92%    604    1.89     8.5    1.6    .209
Joe Nathan        567    327    91%    567    2.17    10.8    2.5    .189

If not for Rivera’s presence as the greatest closer of all time Nathan’s perceived place in the pantheon of relievers would probably be a lot different. Nathan has saved 327 games with a 91 percent success rate and 2.17 ERA since 2004, compared to 355 saves with a 92 percent success rate and 1.89 ERA from Rivera during that time.

Of course, Rivera also racked up 283 saves with a 2.49 ERA in 650 innings before 2004 and has that ridiculously incredible postseason record too, which is why he’s the greatest closer of all time and Nathan is “only” someone who’s pitched like the greatest closer of all time for a decade. Still, with his save last night serving as merely an afterthought to Rivera’s appearance I thought Nathan deserved some attention for an exceptional closing career of his own.

  1. hojo20 - Jul 17, 2013 at 11:26 AM

    Nathan has been a disaster in the postseason.

    • churchoftheperpetuallyoutraged - Jul 17, 2013 at 11:35 AM

      For comparison
      [postseason stats]

      Nathan – 9 IP – 9 ER – 14H, 2HR, 8BB, 11K
      Rivera – 141 IP – 11 ER(!) – 86H, 2HR, 21BB, 110K

      • number42is1 - Jul 17, 2013 at 11:40 AM

        but but… all the thumbs down can’t be wrong……

      • stabonerichard - Jul 17, 2013 at 1:57 PM

        With Joe Nathan understand you’re talking about a postseason sample of less than 10 innings.

        Of his postseason career, a third of the runs were given up in one bad outing with the Giants before he was a closer. I’m not saying you pretend it never happened, but like Mariano’s 5.94 ERA in 50 innings as a starter, once you put things into perspective it’s sort of beside the point.

        Then Nathan gave up a couple more runs in the 2004 ALDS. In a game in which he’d already tossed 2 scoreless innings, Gardy basically hung him out to dry. Gardy is as rigid with the *closer rules* as anybody, but in that particular game he desperately stuck with Nathan (for 50+ pitches) until things fell apart.

        So anyway, if you guys are getting hung up on a tiny sample of postseason innings (and ignoring the context), I’d say you’re missing the point of the article.

      • peopletrains - Jul 17, 2013 at 2:57 PM

        Excuses, excuses. Even with the Giants game removed from the big picture, Nathan was a wreck in the postseason. Sure, only 5-7 save opportunities to compare (with only 1 save) but each trip to mound for him was an absolute rollercoaster.

      • churchoftheperpetuallyoutraged - Jul 17, 2013 at 3:04 PM

        So anyway, if you guys are getting hung up on a tiny sample of postseason innings (and ignoring the context), I’d say you’re missing the point of the article.

        Actually I was just making a point that in 133 more IP, Rivera had only given up 2 more ER. there was no comment on better, worse, or anything. Wasn’t trying to say one was clutch, or unclutch. Just pointing out numbers.

        Regardless of the sample size, this happened. It’s when you want to draw conclusions off the information that SSS issues occur.

      • mortymcfearson - Jul 17, 2013 at 3:40 PM

        How many World Series 7th games has Joe Nathan blown?

      • stabonerichard - Jul 17, 2013 at 4:57 PM

        OK, let’s run thru Nathan’s postseason work…

        Joe Nathan has pitched in the postseason 5 different seasons.

        The first was with the Giants as a middle reliever, when he pitched a grand total of 1/3 of an inning, allowing a third of his career postseason runs.

        As Aaron covered in his article, Nathan joined the Twins in 2004 and was immediately put into the closer role.

        The majority of Nathan’s postseason work came in the 2004 ALDS (5 of his 9 career innings). Here’s how that played out…

        2004 ALDS

        Game 1: Nathan pitched a 1-2-3 9th inning to secure a 2-0 victory at Yankee Stadium.

        Game 2: Nathan was brought on in the 10th inning of a 5-5 game and pitched 2 scoreless innings without allowing a hit. But as I mentioned above, Gardy brought him out for a 3rd inning of work and–even after consecutive walks–left him out there to eventually give up the lead, 50+ pitches later.

        Game 4: Brought into the 8th inning of a 5-5 game (elimination game for the Twins), with 1 out and a runner on 2B, Nathan retired back-to-back hitters to escape the 8th, then pitched a scoreless 9th. The Twins would eventually lose in extra innings.

        The Twins were swept out of the ALDS in 2006 and never had a save opportunity (or even a tie game) with which to hand Nathan the ball. He pitched 2/3 of an inning in the entire series, retiring 2 of the 3 batters he faced.

        The Twins were again swept in 2009, but this time Nathan played a big role. In Game 2 he was handed a 3-1 lead in the 9th, and an A-Rod homer sent the game to extras. No sugar-coating that one; it was the one true stinker from Nathan in the postseason during his decade as a closer.

        Finally, last season the Rangers faced the Orioles in the 1-game wild card round. Darvish and the Rangers trailed 3-1, and Nathan didn’t help the cause by allowing the O’s to score a couple of insurance runs in the 9th. The O’s advanced with a 5-1 victory.

        And that’s it. A tiny sample that people are labeling as a “disaster” or “wreck” and using to downplay the brilliant run he’s had as one of the most dominant closers in baseball history.

  2. proudlycanadian - Jul 17, 2013 at 11:30 AM

    Nathan also had to overcome a TJ.

    • El Bravo - Jul 17, 2013 at 12:05 PM

      I trip to Tiajuana? Yeah, that IS a serious thing to overcome.

  3. cardslifer - Jul 17, 2013 at 11:40 AM

    Not really impressed with Nathan.
    Ole Blue was giving him the Gregg Maddux zone last night

  4. ndnut - Jul 17, 2013 at 12:00 PM

    Exactly why I thought Rivera should close it. Nathan was NOT going to give up 4 runs, or even 3. Rivera could have closed the ASG.

    • mybrunoblog - Jul 17, 2013 at 12:11 PM

      I disagree. Leyland made the right decision. Rivera coming into the game was a great moment. I was a bit skeptical of him receiving the MVP, but there was really no obvious choice so I could live with him getting it. Truthfully, I was most impressed with that damn Corvette Stingray. That is a sweet ride.

      • biasedhomer - Jul 17, 2013 at 12:21 PM

        Normally too I would not be pleased with a relief pitcher winning an MVP for any team competition, but in this case, its the All Star game, and its Rivera’s last one.

      • kevinbnyc - Jul 17, 2013 at 1:38 PM

        Plus about half the AL roster was made up of relief pitchers. Thanks Leyland.

      • albertmn - Jul 17, 2013 at 2:34 PM

        kevinb – What’s your point about relievers? Usually more than half the pitchers on any team are relievers, so why would the AS rosters be different? Am I missing something, or are you one of those that think only starters are “true” pitchers?

  5. km9000 - Jul 17, 2013 at 12:10 PM

    I’d love to listen to a radio station that would play Sweet Caroline followed by Enter Sandman.

  6. JB (the original) - Jul 17, 2013 at 12:13 PM

    JB (the original) – Nov 22, 2011 at 8:08 AM
    I think this will end up being the steal of the FA signing season.

    • biasedhomer - Jul 17, 2013 at 12:22 PM

      It looks good so far, but it was and is a very risky signing since he is coming off major surgery and he has a very shaky postseason record.

      • albertmn - Jul 17, 2013 at 2:36 PM

        As mentioned better and in great detail above about Nathan’s postseason record, “small sample size”.

    • paperlions - Jul 17, 2013 at 2:55 PM

      Nathan 2 year, $14M, so far 104 very nice IP

      Beltran 2 years, $26M, so far over 950 PA with a wRC+ of 133

      Pretty close race.

  7. dsoffer - Jul 17, 2013 at 12:36 PM

    This blog post is a joke

    To not mention at all the repeated failures of Joe Nathan in the playoffs while trying to compare the two is a skewed argument. The numbers aren’t even close. I am not taking anything away from Joe Nathan being a very good closer, but the differences between the two are quite stark. Until Joe Nathan can prove he can put things together when games matter most, this comparison is a non-starter.

  8. alexb64 - Jul 17, 2013 at 12:53 PM

    I agree that Leyland made the right call because it was Rivera’s last All-Star game & you take the guaranteed appearance up 3-0 where the game still “matters” versus a potentially tight situation that, being an exhibition game, he might not be completely amped up for or his appearance maybe being just mop-up duty in a game had the AL tacked on more runs.

    On the “Joe Nathan is great too” end though…no. Not even close. Very familiar with Nathan from his AL Central days & he NEVER had that “This game is over, f**k it.” aura about him that Rivera does. He’s a really good closer, & manages to separate himself from the overrated closers who were never really good but just racked up saves because they were on good teams & happened to not surrender the lead more often than they did. When Sandy Alomar hit that homerun off him in the 97 playoffs, even though it was really just the start of Rivera’s status as a “living legend” it still felt like this unstoppable foe had been toppled. It just never felt that way with Nathan & even the saves that weren’t blown seemed to often be a case of the team’s luck running out rather than Nathan coming in & just nailing the coffin shut.

    That & as I said with the closers that would rack up saves, almost more coincidental than because they were effective, those guys would almost always be useless in the postseason. Again, while Nathan was absolutely better than them he was just as bad in the postseason though & that’s where I think the status of being a “great closer” is earned. Not closing out 4-1 wins against hapless Royals & White Sox teams of the early 2000s.

    • paperlions - Jul 17, 2013 at 3:08 PM

      So…you are just going to ignore that over the coarse of a decade, Rivera would save 3 more games than Nathan, as their save percentages are 1% apart?

      You may have those feelings and impressions, but the data show that they are wrong.

      • eightyraw - Jul 17, 2013 at 3:22 PM

        He lacks that aura. Sure Nathan’s shutdown to meltdown ratio from 2004 is 6.09 compared to Rivera’s 5.17, but Nathan entered games right as opposing teams ran out of luck.

      • paperlions - Jul 17, 2013 at 3:23 PM

        Oh, okay. That makes total sense. Man, I really need to work harder to keep up with the new developments in sabermetrics. 😀

      • eightyraw - Jul 17, 2013 at 5:06 PM

        The newfangled sabremetrics also show that White Sox of the early 2000s were indeed “hapless.” Although the sample in the article only discusses 2004 onward, it should be noted that the hapless White Sox didn’t finish below .500 this millennium until 2007. Since 1999, the Pale Hose have had only three losing seasons, have never lost more than 72 games, have finished lower than third only once (fourth place in 2007), and averaged over 85 wins a season. If we want to single out the “early 2000s” – which I take to mean 2000 thru 2004 (which unfortunately omits the WS-winning team) – then we have seasons of 95, 83, 81, 86, and 83 wins. Joe Nathan did not join the Twins and become a closer until 2004, making the mention of him racking up saves against “hapless” White Sox teams of the early 2000s even more ridiculous.

        Aura not evidence determines quality.

      • alexb64 - Jul 17, 2013 at 5:24 PM

        Man you “Joe Nathan Army” guys are pretty touchy!

      • eightyraw - Jul 17, 2013 at 5:36 PM

        It has little to do with Joe Nathan and everything to do with relying on valuable data instead of wholly meaningless narratives.

      • clemente2 - Jul 17, 2013 at 5:43 PM

        “…as opposing teams ran out of luck…”


        This makes Morris’ pitching to the score seem like a general principle of quantum mechanics.

      • clemente2 - Jul 17, 2013 at 5:45 PM

        Sorry, eighty, I see you were being sarcastic. Your other points are cool.

        The denigration of intelligence in my prior post—that goes to alex. You earned it!

      • eightyraw - Jul 17, 2013 at 5:59 PM

        That was me paraphrasing this utterly ridiculous claim by Alex: ” It just never felt that way with Nathan & even the saves that weren’t blown seemed to often be a case of the team’s luck running out rather than Nathan coming in & just nailing the coffin shut.”

  9. mtr75 - Jul 17, 2013 at 2:18 PM

    People need to stop comparing anyone to Mariano. He’s the best relief pitcher in the history of the game, period.

    • paperlions - Jul 17, 2013 at 3:11 PM

      Just curious. If you didn’t compare Rivera to anyone else, how do you arrive at your conclusion?

      • mtr75 - Jul 22, 2013 at 6:29 PM

        If you look carefully I didn’t say anything about comparing anyone to Mariano, I said you can’t compare anyone to him.

  10. whitdog23 - Jul 17, 2013 at 2:44 PM

    where’s the outcry from Yanks fans for Selig to change rule and give Rivera the save in his final All Star Game??

  11. dcarroll73 - Jul 17, 2013 at 11:32 PM

    As a life-long fan of both the Yanks and the Giants, I sort of have two horses in this race. Joe Nathan is great, and as a Giants fan I hated to see him go. As for Mariano, let me go back to the two-horse analogy. Mariano is Affirmed, and if Joe Nathan manages another 8 years or so of performances as good or better than his latest seasons along with being lights out in any post seasons (with the Twins??) then he still will not be Alydar. The thing that made Alydar so awesome was that he never quit going head to head with the best. That is just not possible with closers except in a rare case (which is one of the many reasons I miss those days when guys like Marichal, Drysdale, Koufax, Gibson and Spahn would keep going toe-to-toe with the game on the line.)

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