Joe Nathan was About as Good as Billy Wagner

Jordan Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

As I have made clear now several times I do not think much of relievers for the Hall of Fame. Billy Wagner is now making a slow ascent which, I firmly believe, will end up in Cooperstown either via the BBWAA or via the Veteran's Committee. One pitcher joined the ballot this year who ranks two spots behind Wagner on RP JAWS: Joe Nathan. Nathan was a contemporary of Wagner, and while not quite as flash, still quite effective. Nathan chose to keep pitching into his forties while Wagner chose to retire. It is my contention that there is not much difference between Lee Smith, Trevor Hoffman, Billy Wagner and Joe Nathan.

Joe Nathan, RP (8th) 26.7/21.7/24.2; AVG: 39.1/26.0/32.6

Here's the issue with relievers: there are far too many pitchers who basically do the exact same thing. Billy Wagner's job was to finish games, and he was quite good at it. Joe Nathan's job was the same, and he too was quite good at it. Joe Nathan never led the league in saves, but he finished in the top 10 nine times (and ranks 8th all time although Craig Kimbrel is likely to surpass him next season). Now if we want to broaden our search a bit since saves are a relatively recent static and use Games Finished he ranks a less exciting 20th. Nathan led the league in games finished once, and finished in the top 10 another eight times. Billy Wagner also never led the league in saves, but finished in the top 10 10 times, and led the league in games finished twice, and finished in the top 10 nine times.

Now when we look at their peripheral statistics Wagner's dominance comes into play. Here's their strikeout numbers and run prevention:

Wagner: 11.9 SO/9 (33.2%), 2.99 BB/9 (8.3%), 187 ERA+, 63 FIP-

Nathan: 9.51 SO/9 (25.9%), 3.35 BB/9 (9.1%), 151 ERA+, 79 FIP-

In short, as we have known for a while, Wagner's dominance is largely unparalleled. Only Mariano Rivera really compares to Wagner. Wagner does have a comparatively smaller run prevention advantage over Nathan, but it did not translate into a vast value difference. Baseball Reference figures them as nearly identical candidates (their JAWS score is only a half win apart), with Nathan holding a slight peak advantage over Wagner (21.7-19.8). Fangraphs is less close giving Wagner the advantage of 24.0 to 19.5, which is quite substantial. If we look at WPA, which solely attempts to take into account the leverage, Nathan is on top by a win and a half.

One Nathan statistic I dwell on is his ERA+ of 151, which is quite good even by reliever standards. 151 pails in comparison to Wagner and Mariano (202), but is better than Trevor Hoffman's 141, Lee Smith's 132, Rolling Finger's 120, Hoyt Willhelm's 147 and Bruce Sutter's 136. If we put a cutoff of 800 innings Nathan's 151 ranks 3rd (4th if you give Tom Henke a pass at 789.2). In short white Nathan was not quite in Wagner's class, he was ahead of the other relievers already in the Hall. We do not know where the current crop of relievers will last, but he also ranks ahead of Francisco Rodriguez.


This is a short post, but the point for me is simple. There really is not that huge of a gap between Nathan and Wagner. Nor between Nathan, Wagner and Francisco Rodriguez when the truth comes down to it. The job of all the modern relievers today is to finish games: and Joe Nathan was just as good as anyone at finishing them out. When it comes down to it I really believe that we both miss use modern relievers, and we are using the wrong stats to judge them. The three top pitchers in relievers in terms of saves have come up for election, and all three earned induction. Wagner's case has taken longer to reach induction (largely due, I think, to his save numbers being a touch lower than Smith's. The fact of the matter is, by those standards, Joe Nathan was nearly as good and by peripheral statistics he was better than Smith and Hoffman.

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