In late March, Minnesota Twins closer Joe Nathan underwent Tommy John surgery, ending his 2010 season before it even started. To many fans and analysts, this loss seemed to constitute nothing short of a mortal wound to the Twins’ playoff hopes. This was a reasonable opinion on the surface. Since joining the Twins in 2004, Nathan had thrown 418 innings, allowed 271 hits, struck out 518, and walked 120 batters. His 1.87 ERA and 246 saves in that span earned him the reputation of the best closer in the game not named Mariano Rivera. This was what the Twins were losing.
Soon after, Fox’s Ken Rosenthal wrote a column addressing the impact of Nathan’s injury on the AL Central. The following exercise is not meant maliciously, or as an attempt to single out Rosenthal as the only Chicken Little in the sports media ranks. But Rosenthal’s words are perfect examples of not only the way the Twins were being discounted, but also of our bizarre reverence for the supposedly mystical abilities of “proven closers.” Some quotes:
Short-term, the Twins simply cannot replace Nathan, who has a “significant tear” in the ulnar collateral ligament of his pitching elbow, according to the team.
But manager Ron Gardenhire likely will need to mix and match in the ninth inning; it’s difficult to imagine him anointing right-hander Jon Rauch or anyone else in the Twins’ bullpen as the sole replacement for Nathan.
While the importance of identifying a closer remains a subject of debate in baseball, no one disputes the value of a closer such as Nathan. Managing a bullpen-by-committee is difficult; roles become less defined, and relievers often struggle when asked to perform in higher-leverage situations.
The Twins need Joe Nathan.
Six months later, the Minnesota Twins are AL Central champions. Their 94-68 record dwarfs their 87-76 record in 2009, when you consider the marginal value of wins 88 through 94. Their +110 run differential more than doubled their 2009 edition’s (+52). While they scored 36 fewer runs in 2010, they also allowed 94 fewer. They won the division by six games. Last year they won by one. The 2010 Twins are simply a better team that last year’s bunch, and they did it all without the supposedly indispensable Joe Nathan throwing a single pitch. But how?
The natural reaction would be to look at the bullpen and see who replaced Nathan’s production in 2010. The aforementioned Jon Rauch handled the closing duties in the first half of the season. He posted a 3.12 ERA, a 1.30 WHIP, 7.2 K/9 and a 3.29 K/BB while accumulating 21 saves. After some injury problems and a mid-season trade, Rauch ceded the closer role to the newly-acquired Matt Capps. Capps earned 16 saves, along with a 2.00 ERA, a 1.18 WHIP, a 7.0 K/9, and a 2.63 K/BB. Rauch and Capps combined to earn 37 of the Twins’ 40 saves – seven fewer than Nathan’s 2009 total. And while their numbers were certainly respectable, they were nowhere near as dominant as the man’s they were trying to replace. Yet the Twins won more games and allowed fewer runs.
We could look at the rest of the 2010 Twins’ bullpen. Maybe the middle relief was much better than it was in 2009, detracting from the importance of having a dominant closer. Well, the 2010 bullpen’s ERA was 3.49. That’s 0.38 better than in 2009. Of course, losing Nathan’s strikeouts and command made this year’s bullpen worse in terms of K/9, but the net effect surprisingly turns out to be zero. In 2009, Twins relievers had a 6.06 win probability added (WPA). That figure actually rose to 6.13 in 2010. According to that metric, the Twins’ bullpen actually improved slightly without the services of its proven closer.
Here’s a thought. Maybe the reason for the Twins’ improvement has nothing to do with their closer situation. Maybe the Twins got better because Francisco Liriano blossomed into the dominant, front-line, strikeout pitcher the Twins have been missing since Johan Santana left. Maybe they got better because Carl Pavano (Carl Pavano!) reinvented himself as a durable, groundball machine. Maybe they got better because Nick Blackburn and Scott Baker – the Twins’ best and second-best starters in 2009 – are now the team’s third and fifth-best starters. Maybe they got better because they went from fourth in the AL in OBP to second, or because they went from seventh in slugging to fourth. Or maybe – just maybe – having a lockdown, proven, premier closer is way less important than having a potent lineup, a durable and power-pitching rotation, and an effective defense. Maybe – just maybe – closers aren’t worth as much as we think they are or as much as we want them to be worth, a valuation that allows us (and managers, mind you) to eschew independent thinking by pointing our fingers at the closer and saying “he’s the key to it all.” Maybe an elite closer is a luxury and not necessity.
And by “maybe,” I mean “it is absolutely true that…”