Nine pitches; six strikes. That’s all it took for Joe Nathan to rack up his five saves of the season, and second since reclaiming the closer role over Matt Capps. Capps had been terrible in July; allowing seven runs in 5.2 innings and failing to record a strikeout. Nathan, however, has also struggled this season after attempting to return from Tommy John Surgery, and even managed to miss a month this season with elbow issues. Since returning from elbow soreness, Nathan has been lights out for the Minnesota Twins. Now that Nathan has been reinstalled as the closer, what are the chances he keeps the job for the rest of the season?
Though he’s pitched effectively since returning from injury, it’s fair to say that both Nathan and Capps have struggled this season. While Capps has managed to post the lowest walk rate of his career, his strikeout rate has plummeted to unacceptable levels. He’s also had some major issues with the home run; posting a poor 1.59 HR/9 this season. When you combine those disturbing trends with Capps’ recent struggles, it’s easy to see why Ron Gardenhire didn’t hesitate to make a change.
At the same time, it’s tough to evaluate Joe Nathan’s uneven performance this season. While Nathan’s peripherals only appear to be slightly worse than his career numbers, they are a far cry from the dominant Nathan we’ve come to know over the past seven seasons. Nathan’s career numbers are a bit deceiving, as he really struggled in his first 187 professional innings. Since joining the Twins, his strikeout rate has consistently hovered around 10; with his walk rate averaging about 2.5 per nine innings. Looking at his numbers through that prism, Nathan’s 8.37 K/9 and 3.42 BB/9 look pedestrian compared to his last seven seasons. Perhaps that’s to be expected; as it takes time to fully recover from Tommy John.
While his elbow soreness looked like a harbinger of additional struggles, Nathan has pitched really well since his return; albeit in a really small sample. In 8.1 innings pitched, Nathan has allowed only four hits; while striking out seven and walking none. There is another — and perhaps more significant — reason to buy into Nathan’s recent resurgence; his velocity. While his fastball velocity hasn’t fully recovered, his PitchFx charts reveal that he has regained some velocity since returning from his injury. Nathan has really struggled when throwing the fastball this season, leading to a terrible -4.1 pitch type value this season. The increase in velocity should help in that area.
It hasn’t been a large sample, but there’s reason to believe Joe Nathan is ready to close again. His performance since returning from elbow soreness has been tough to discount, and his velocity appears to be creeping back towards pre-injury levels. Perhaps most importantly, he seems to have the confidence of Ron Gardenhire at this point, and a lengthy track record as a dominant closer. Gardenhire has succeeded with Nathan before, and will likely give him a decent leash even if he starts to struggle again. At this point, Nathan looks like a strong pickup in any leagues where fed-up owners gave up on his comeback. We may have seen the last of Matt Capps in the Twins’ closer role this season.
Chris is a blogger for CBSSports.com. He has also contributed to Sports on Earth, the 2013 Hard Ball Times Baseball Annual, ESPN, FanGraphs and RotoGraphs. He tries to be funny on twitter @Chris_Cwik.