Stats & Info: Joe Nathan

Tuesday's priority: Upgrade bullpen, 'd'

December, 3, 2013
12/03/13
7:03
PM ET
It was a very, very busy Tuesday in baseball and the priorities for the teams involved in making moves revolved around two areas- relief pitching and defense.

The Tigers made the biggest transaction of the day so far, signing free agent closer Joe Nathan to a two-year contract.

Nathan is the active leader in saves with 341, tied with Hall-of-Famer Rollie Fingers for 10th most all-time. Nathan comes off a season in which he had a 1.39 ERA and 43 saves. His four seasons with 43 or more saves rank tied for third-most all-time.

The upgrade in putting Nathan as closer ahead of Joaquin Benoit is tied to the history of each with regards to giving up home runs.

Benoit has allowed a homer every 30 at-bats over the last three seasons. Nathan has allowed one every 39 at-bats.

Athletics continue remake with Gregerson
The Athletics traded Seth Smith to the Padres for middle-relief specialist Luke Gregerson.

Gregerson brings durability, having made 70 or more appearances in four of the last five seasons. His 132 holds in that span are by far the most in the majors.

Gregerson succeeds despite not throwing that hard. His average fastball is 89 mph. He’s thrown nearly 1,800 sliders over the last three seasons. The only reliever to throw more is Carlos Marmol.

Gregerson will pair with Jim Johnson to form a new back end of the Athletics bullpen.

Bell will toll for Rays
Heath Bell will join his fourth team in as many seasons, as he’s headed to the Tampa Bay Rays in a three-team trade.

After three straight 40-save seasons, Bell has sputtered the last two years with the Marlins and Diamondbacks.

Bell did have 72 strikeouts and 16 walks last season, a ratio comparable to what the Rays got from their closer, Fernando Rodney, in 2012.

But the focus for the Rays will be on keeping Bell’s homer total down. He yielded 12 in 65 2/3 innings, or two more than he allowed in nearly 200 innings of work from 2010 to 2012.

Gentry goes to the Athletics
The Athletics obtained Craig Gentry from the Texas Rangers and could plug him into their outfield in a number of ways.

His best spot from a defensive perspective is centerfield. Gentry ranks 29th in innings at that position over the last three seasons, but rates tied for third with 32 Defensive Runs Saved in that same span.

Gentry doesn’t hit for power but does have a .365 on-base percentage over the last three seasons.

He also can net extra bases after reaching, as he’s 55 for 65 in stolen base tries over the last three seasons (an 85 percent success rate that rates 11th-best among those with 40 or more steals).

Hanigan to the Rays
A bunch of catchers changed teams, with A.J. Pierzynski signing with the Red Sox and Jarrod Saltalamacchia subsequently heading to the Marlins.

Those were offensive-minded moves in each case (as noted in the chart at right), but the Rays snuck in and made a prominent move for their defense.

The trade with the Reds for Ryan Hanigan gives the Rays a second catcher highly regarded for his pitch-framing (as noted in this Grantland piece) and throwing arm.

Opponents have 52 steals against Hanigan and have been caught 38 times by him (they were also caught nine times by pitchers) over the last two seasons. The 58 percent steal success rate was the second-lowest against a catcher, behind only the 56 percent success rate against Yadier Molina.

Hanigan hit only .198 last season, but he walked more than he struck out for the fifth time in the five seasons in which he’s had at least 200 plate appearances. He had an on-base percentage of .350 or better in each season from 2009 to 2012.

Wednesday's wild card story: Clutch hits

September, 19, 2013
9/19/13
1:20
AM ET
There were three highly entertaining games on Wednesday night that played a significant role in the AL Wild Card race. While the Kansas City Royals- Cleveland Indians game was decided early, the contests between the Baltimore Orioles and Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees and Toronto Blue Jays, and Tampa Bay Rays and Texas Rangers would come down to pivotal late-game matchups.

Orioles vs. Red Sox
Key at-bat: Chris Davis vs. Franklin Morales


Situation: Tied in the 12th inning; bases loaded, two outs.
Chris Davis
Davis

Davis entered 2-for-his-last-15 against left-handed pitching and he was facing a pitcher who had retired the last 11 left-handed hitters he faced.

But Davis got a hanging curveball on a 1-2 count and was able to ground it just past Dustin Pedroia for a two-run single. Davis has now gotten three straight hits against Morales.

He was fortunate to sneak that one just by the diving Pedroia. The Red Sox second baseman leads major leaguers at that position with 17 Defensive Runs Saved.

Yankees vs. Blue Jays
Key at-bat: Vernon Wells vs. Steve Delabar

Situation: Yankees down a run in the eighth inning, second and third, one out.
Vernon Wells
Wells
The Blue Jays probably felt pretty good with reliable All-Star Steve Delabar trying to protect a three run lead in the eighth inning, but Delabar has been rather shaky lately. Right-handed hitters, who were 17-for-84 with 30 strikeouts against him prior to the All-Star Break, entered this at-bat 11 for their last 30 against him.

Wells has had trouble with right-handed pitching all season, hitting .210 against righties entering Thursday. But down in the count 0-1, he was able to drill a line-drive double to plate the tying and go-ahead runs.

It gave Wells’ his first multi-hit game since August 13 against the Angels.

Rays vs. Rangers
Key at-bat: David DeJesus vs. Joe Nathan


Situation: Rangers up a run in the 11th inning, man on second, two outs.
David DeJesus
DeJesus

Nathan was a strike away from putting the Rangers a game ahead of the Rays in the AL Wild Card chase, but he couldn’t sneak strike three by DeJesus.

Nathan may end up kicking himself for his pitch choice—-a curveball that hung in the upper-half of the strike zone, one DeJesus was able to ground past Nathan for the game-tying hit.

The curve is Nathan’s third option in two-strike situations (like this one). He typically throws it about 14 percent of the time (his other pitches are split between fastballs and sliders).

The Rays would win in the 12th with Nathan out of the game, on a game-winning hit by Desmond Jennings.

The other key to the comeback was Freddy Guzman’s stolen base, which put him in scoring position. Guzman was making his first appearance in a game since appearing for the Yankees in the 2009 ALCS.

Guzman is on the Rays’ roster for his speed. He had 73 steals in 82 attempts in 99 games in the Mexican League prior to joining the Rays.

AL East extends its lead in power rankings

August, 1, 2013
8/01/13
2:20
PM ET
Can anyone top the beasts of the AL East? Ahead in the rankings all season, the AL East further increased its lead as the AL West and NL Central were both underwhelming months in July according to the ESPN Stats & Information MLB Division Power Rankings.

The Tampa Bay Rays led the way for the AL East last month. Strong pitching outings by David Price and Matt Moore helped propel the Rays to a 21-5 month.

However, according to our player ratings, those were not the big players for the AL East. Baseball's home run leader, Chris Davis, continues to lead the division in the batter player ratings at third overall (http://espn.go.com/mlb/playerratings/_/type/batting).

The Oakland Athletics have been the stabilizing factor in the AL West since last season. Sitting fifth in the power rankings (http://espn.go.com/mlb/powerrankings) and holding one of the best records in baseball, the A’s are led by Josh Donaldson and Bartolo Colón ranking in the top 30 of the player rankings (http://espn.go.com/mlb/playerratings/_/type/pitching). And Bartolo Colón isn’t the only pitcher from the AL West dominating this season.

Yu Darvish holds the American League’s lowest opponent batting average and one of the best WHIPs in baseball. Darvish along with teammates Joe Nathan and Derek Holland have helped the AL West on the pitching side, but Mike Trout has provided the biggest boost from the offensive end for the AL West. Behind only Miguel Cabrera in batting average, Trout is arguably the second best hitter in the AL, doing his best to help a hurting Los Angeles Angels team.

The Seattle Mariners had their best month of the season, but sub-.500 months from the other three teams hurt. As a whole, the AL West had an ERA half a run higher than any of the other divisions.

With the Houston Astros holding steady at the bottom of the power rankings and the standings, it's not likely the AL West to overcome the AL East. However, improvement from the Angels or Rangers and continued winning from the Mariners could see the AL West start to chip away at the deficit.

For an explanation of the rankings system, click here.

Pitching riches overwhelm in All-Star Game

July, 17, 2013
7/17/13
12:57
AM ET
Robert Deutsch/USA Today SportsIn Mariano Rivera's final All-Star Game, pitching ruled the day.


Pitching, pitching and more pitching was the dominant statistical storyline in the 2013 MLB All-Star Game.

This year’s contest was, like last year’s, a shutout, marking the first time in All-Star Game history that consecutive games were shutouts.

The three runs scored were the fewest combined by the two teams in an All-Star Game since 1990, when the AL won 2-0. The teams combined to hit .197 with the NL managing only three hits, tied for the second-fewest in an All-Star Game.

With the win, the AL will hold home-field advantage in this year’s World Series.

Let’s run through some of the highlights.

Mariano Rivera the MVP
Mariano Rivera won MVP honors, which wasn’t so much for this game (in which he pitched a scoreless eighth inning), but was more of a lifetime achievement award to commemorate his great career.

Rivera pitched nine innings in his All-Star career and allowed one unearned run. The only pitcher to pitch more All-Star innings without allowing an earned run was Mel Harder, who pitched for the Cleveland Indians in the 1930s and 1940s.

Rivera got a “hold” in this game and not a save. His four All-Star Game saves are the most all-time.

Rivera is the first pitcher who was primarily used by his major league team as a relief pitcher to earn All-Star Game MVP honors. He’s the second to pitch in relief in the game and earn MVP, joining Jon Matlack, a starter on the 1975 New York Mets who shared MVP honors in that year’s All-Star Game.

Rivera is the first pitcher to win All-Star Game MVP since Pedro Martinez in 1999 and the second Yankees player to win it, joining Derek Jeter in 2000.

Elias notes that he’ll join Cal Ripken Jr. as the only players to win All-Star Game MVP in their final seasons.

The young guys were very impressive
NL starter Matt Harvey, the first New York Mets pitcher to start the All-Star Game since Dwight Gooden in 1988, looked sharp after letting the first two hitters reach base. He was the first Mets pitcher to throw two scoreless innings in an All-Star Game since Gooden in 1984.

Harvey continued a run of dominance by Mets pitchers making their All-Star debuts. The 11 pitchers have combined for 12 2/3 scoreless innings, with 20 strikeouts.

White Sox pitcher Chris Sale earned the win. He was the first AL pitcher to throw two perfect innings in an All-Star Game since Roger Clemens in 2001. He’s the first White Sox pitcher to win an All-Star Game since Mark Buehrle in 2005.

Miami Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez struck out a pair of hitters in the sixth inning to become the third pitcher age 20 or younger with multiple strikeouts in an All-Star Game, joining Gooden (1984) and Hall of Famer Bob Feller.

The combined line for those three -- five innings pitched, one hit allowed, seven strikeouts. The trio has 93 career starts between them.

Teamwork
The AL benefited from a couple of nifty examples of teamwork en route to the win.

Jhonny Peralta, Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera each had at least one hit in the game. It’s the first time that the Detroit Tigers have had three different players get a hit in an All-Star Game.

On the pitching side, Toronto Blue Jays relievers Brett Cecil and Steve Delabar combined for the last two outs of the seventh inning by striking out left-handed hitting Domonic Brown and right-handed hitting Buster Posey.
Cecil has held lefties to a .154 on-base percentage this season, the lowest for anyone in the majors this season.

Delabar has struck out 150 batters in 108 innings over the last two seasons. His rate of 12.5 strikeouts per 9 innings is eighth-best in the majors in that span.

Did You Know?
The NL finished with only four baserunners, the fewest in a game for either team since 1995 and the fewest for the NL in an All-Star Game since 1968.

The AL grounded into an All-Star Game-record four double plays.

Joe Nathan recorded the save. The only other Rangers pitcher to record a save in an All-Star Game was John Wetteland in 1999. You might remember Wetteland as the pitcher who preceded Rivera as Yankees closer.

Left: Where Joe Nathan located his slider to right-handed hitters prior to his midseason DL stint
Right: Where he located his slider to right-handed hitters after returning from DL
Click here to create your own Nathan heat maps
Each Sunday, ESPN Stats & Information reviews significant moves from the past week.

Rangers sign Joe Nathan: 2 years, $14.5 million
The Texas Rangers must have liked what they saw from Joe Nathan's last three months with the Minnesota Twins in 2011.

The key to Nathan's improved performance after coming off the disabled list in late June (he missed a month with a muscle strain) was a much more effective slider.

In his first 17 appearances back from Tommy John Surgery, Nathan's slider was flat, averaging 1.5 inches of vertical break. Hitters weren't fooled, going 4-for-20 while missing on only one of every four swings.

After a month on the disabled list, Nathan returned with a slider that was nearly unhittable.

Batters managed just two hits in 35 at-bats (.057) and whiffed on almost half of their swings in his final 31 appearances.

The vertical break on his slider nearly doubled to 2.8 inches during this stretch, and of the 18 sliders put in play, not a single one was classified as "well hit" by video scouts at Inside Edge.

Nathan has a good history against the Rangers current AL West opponents, converting 43 of 48 save chances for his career against the Seattle Mariners, Los Angeles Angels, and Oakland Athletics.

In 83 innings against those three teams, he’s allowed just 10 earned runs, and his WHIP against each is 0.85 or lower.
--Katie Sharp and Michael Bonzagni

Pirates sign Clint Barmes: 2 years, $10.5 million
Amazingly, this deal was the Pirates first free-agent signing to a contract with a total value of at least $10 million since inking third baseman Steve Buechele for four years and $11 million in the 1991-92 offseason.

What did the Pirates get for their investment in Barmes?

Barmes had 12 Defensive Runs Saved last season, four more than Ronny Cedeno had in nearly the same number of innings.

The major difference in their performance was in Barmes’ success rate at turning double plays.

Barmes converted double plays at a 66 percent rate. Cedeno converted 59 percent.

Offensively, Barmes had a .141 isolated power last year, seventh-best among shortstops (min. 400 PA). All 12 of his homers went over the left-field fence last season and 40 of 43 have since 2009.

He'll be challenged to retain that home-run power as a Pirate. Minute Maid Park in Houston boosted homer production by seven percent for right-handed batters in 2011.

PNC Park deflated right-handed batters' home runs by 16 percent over the last three seasons, according to ballpark factors from Baseball Info Solutions.
--Katie Sharp

Marlins trade Josh Baker to Padres for Wade LeBlanc
The Florida Marlins attempt at adding depth to their starting rotation netted them a pitcher with previous big-ballpark success.

LeBlanc succeeded in PETCO Park, where he had a 2.97 career ERA, but had a 6.16 ERA in his road appearances since debuting in 2008.

The 3.19 difference between road and home is the largest for any pitcher who pitched at least 100 innings in the last four seasons, and is largely due to LeBlanc’s rate of home runs allowed (one every 5.4 innings on road, every 8.7 innings at home).

Leblanc, a lefty, has two issues that the Marlins staff will look to fix. One is a cutter that got 48 outs and allowed only 14 hits against right-handed hitters, but got just 10 outs and yielded 11 hits to lefties.

The other is that his stuff is simply too hittable. Left-handed hitters were 29-for-61 when making contact against LeBlanc last season. Of the 60 balls that lefties hit that stayed in the ballpark, nearly half (28 of them) were classified as line drives.

LeBlanc’s 47 percent line drive rate versus lefties last season was the worst in the majors.
-- Mark Simon

Pinstripe panic in the Bronx

August, 12, 2011
8/12/11
3:42
PM ET
Mariano Rivera
Rivera

Much has been made about New York Yankees reliever Mariano Rivera’s struggles of late, but is it a cause for concern? According to Elias, in each of his last three appearances he was charged with at least one run while not recording a single strikeout. It’s the first time that Mariano Rivera has done that in three consecutive games in his 17-year major-league career.

Even so, fans shouldn’t be too worried. August has never been Rivera’s strongest month; his 19 career blown saves and .226 opponent batting average are his most in any month, and his 2.39 ERA is second-highest behind only September.

In his last three outings, Rivera has thrown pitches for strikes nearly as consistently as he had in all previous 2011 appearances (45 percent in last three compared to about 46 percent in all others). The difference, however, is that hitters are chasing his pitches out of the zone far less often.

Before his last three games, batters were chasing out-of-the-zone pitches nearly 43 percent of the time. That number is under 30 percent since August 7. When hitters are making contact, they are putting the ball in play far more often as well. In those same splits hitters were putting the ball in play on just 35 percent of swings before August 7. Since then, that rate is nearly 67 percent.

Double Trouble
Five seasons ago, the Minnesota Twins had the best bullpen in the majors. Joe Nathan led a staff that sported just a 2.91 ERA that season, nearly a half run better than any other squad in MLB. In 2011 that figure is 4.66, the worst in baseball. A primary weakness of the bullpen this season is a strikeout-to-walk ratio of just 1.71, third-worst in baseball. Lefty Jose Mijares has been a significant culprit; of relievers who have logged at least 30 innings this year, his ratio of 0.91 is third-worst in the majors.

Sergio Santos
Santos
Reliever of the Week
Sergio Santos of the Chicago White Sox was dominant this past week, collecting three saves in four appearances since Saturday. Santos did not allow a hit or walk in that span while striking out seven. In eight plate appearances that reached two strikes, hitters swung and missed on his slider and fastball a combined 75 percent of the time.
CC Sabathia bolstered his case for the AL Cy Young Award with another gem on Tuesday night. He struck out a career-best 14 batters while allowing just one hit in seven innings, as the New York Yankees sent the Seattle Mariners to their 17th straight loss.

CC Sabathia
Sabathia
Sabathia took a perfect game into the seventh inning before Brendan Ryan broke it up with a one-out single. It was the longest perfect bid by a Yankee since Andy Pettitte went 6⅔ innings in 2009.

Sabathia also struck out seven straight Mariners, the longest streak by a Yankee since Ron Davis set down eight in a row on May 4, 1981. Sabathia’s 14 strikeouts are tied for the fourth-most by a Yankee left-hander, the most since David Wells had a 16-strikeout game in 1997.

Sabathia’s pitching line of 14 strikeouts and one hit allowed has been duplicated by just four other left-handers in the Live Ball Era. Randy Johnson had six such games, while Steve Carlton (1972), Sandy Koufax (1965) and Warren Spahn (1960) also did it.

The Mariners extend their franchise-record losing streak to 17 games, the longest since the Royals dropped 19 in a row in 2005. They struck out 18 times, tied for the second-most strikeouts in a game in team history, and got just one hit on the night.

Only one other team in the Live Ball Era has struck out at least 18 times with one hit or fewer: in 1998, the Chicago Cubs Kerry Wood tossed 20-strikeout, one-hit shutout against the Houston Astros on May 6, 1998.

Around the Diamond
•  Vance Worley allowed two runs for his first career complete game. He snapped his streak of six straight starts with five-or-more innings pitched and one earned run or fewer allowed, which was tied for the longest by a Philadelphia Phillies starter since earned runs became official in 1913.

Worley didn’t get a swing-and-miss during his complete game, the first pitcher since Steve Trachsel on May 28, 2007 to throw a complete game without getting a swing and miss.

• Jered Weaver tossed seven innings of one-run ball, extending his streak of quality starts to 13. He’s now tied with Hall-of-Famer Bert Blyleven for the second-longest such streak in Angels history.

•  Joe Nathan recorded his 254th career save, tying Rick Aguilera for the most in Twins franchise history.

•  Justin Verlander allowed two homers in a game for the third time this season. It’s the seventh time the Chicago White Sox have taken him deep twice in a game during his career, the most multi-homer games against him by any team. Only three other teams (Oakland Athletics, Cleveland Indians, Toronto Blue Jays) have even had two such games.

•  One of those home runs was by Adam Dunn after he was down in the count 0-2. It was his first home run - and only second hit this season - after being down in the count 0-2. Prior to that at-bat, Dunn was 1-for-74 (.014) with 50 strikeouts after being down 0-2.

•  Dustin Pedroia extended his hit streak to 23 games, tied with Del Pratt in 1922 for the longest by a Boston Red Sox second baseman in the Live Ball Era.

Thanks to the Elias Sports Bureau and Baseball-Reference.com for providing many of the notes
The Twins and Athletics entered the weekend looking to snap matching 11-game losing streaks against their opponents, the Tigers and Yankees. Those were the two longest active streaks for any major-league team against an opponent, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

And both emerged as winners on Saturday afternoon, with the A’s slipping past the Yankees, 4-3, and the Twins beating the Tigers, 4-1.

The Athletics losing streak vs the Yankees was their longest against the team since a 14-game streak from 1956-57. The Twins losing streak vs the Tigers was their longest against Detroit in the history of the franchise.

For the A’s, Josh Willingham and Hideki Matsui homered to lead the offense. It was Willingham’s first career homer versus the Yankees, and Matsui’s fourth against his former team.

The Twins were led by a strong pitching performance from Scott Baker, who tossed five scoreless innings in his first outing since coming off the disabled list. Baker shut down the Tigers’ left-handed bats, who were 1-for-12 with five strikeouts against him.

Joe Nathan came on for the ninth and notched his seventh save this season and 253rd in his career, which is one shy of the Twins record set by Rick Aguilera.

Around the diamond

• The Philadelphia Phillies beat the San Diego Padres 8-6, extending their win streak over them to nine games, which is now tied for the longest current win streak against an opponent in the majors.

Chase Utley hit two homers for his 19th multi-homer game, matching Rogers Hornsby for the fifth-most by a second baseman in the Live Ball Era (since 1920).

Chad Qualls entered the game in the seventh inning with a 4-3 lead and imploded, allowing five runs and three homers while getting just one out.

Qualls became the seventh reliever in the Live Ball Era to give up three-or-more homers and at least five runs while pitching one-third of an inning or fewer, and the first since Chris Spurling on July 18, 2005 vs. White Sox.

• The Chicago Cubs beat the Houston Astros 5-1, as Houston dropped to an MLB-worst 33-67. Prior to this week, the franchise hadn’t been 34 games under .500 since September 27, 1975, when they were 63-97 following 5-1 loss to the Dodgers.

The Cubs, who won the first two games of the series, will go for their first three-game win streak this season on Sunday. The last Cubs team to go this long into the season without a three-game win streak was the 1966 squad. They didn’t win three in a row until the 108th game, according to Elias.

Relievers key to Marlins' early success

April, 23, 2011
4/23/11
9:02
AM ET
The Florida Marlins have won 12 of their first 18 games and their bullpen is a huge reason why. Through Friday’s games, Florida’s relievers own a miniscule 1.63 ERA and have held opposing hitters to a .180 batting average -- both best in the majors.

Part of the success can be attributed to plain good fortune, as opponents own a .218 batting average on balls in play, second-lowest in baseball. But with the Marlins’ starters posting an ERA of 4.01 (15th in majors), their relievers have carried the staff thus far.

The contributions of middle reliever Brian Sanches cannot be discounted. He has yet to allow a run and has surrendered only one hit in his 10 ⅔ innings. Sanches is the only player in the majors to log at least 10 innings this season while allowing only one hit or fewer.

Sanches has been very effective against the first batter he’s faced in his six appearances. He’s allowed just one of those hitters to reach base, and that was via an intentional walk. Sanches has yet to give up a hit against his two primary offspeed pitches -- the changeup and curve.

Below-Average Joe
One of the great closers of this generation, Joe Nathan, has struggled mightily in his comeback from Tommy John surgery, which forced him to miss the entire 2010 season. His 250 saves are fifth-most among active pitchers, but the Minnesota Twins have already lifted him from his traditional closer role. Nathan has posted a WHIP above 2.00 and hitters own a 1.078 OPS against him. His fastball has lost about two miles per hour compared to 2009, as has his slider. That could be a big reason why Nathan has an ERA over 11.00 so far this year.

Under the Radar
Boston Red Sox reliever Daniel Bard had himself an impressive week. Between Saturday and Thursday, Bard logged 4 ⅔ scoreless innings. Of the 15 batters faced, he allowed just three to reach base. In that span, batters swung at pitches outside the strike zone over 23 percent of the time, including a chase percentage of 55.6 with two strikes (league average: 40.5 pct).

Phillies should be fine without Lidge

March, 29, 2011
3/29/11
9:34
PM ET
For the third time in four seasons, Brad Lidge will start the season on the disabled list. The Phillies announced their closer will miss between three and six weeks with a strained right shoulder. While Lidge is just one of several key Phillies contributors with injury concerns at the start of the season, the damage from his DL stint- whether his absence is brief or extended - should be limited.

Brad Lidge
Lidge
After a perfect 2008 (literally, he converted all 41 of his save opportunities), Lidge has been far from flawless over the last two seasons. Lidge has an MLB-high 16 blown saves since 2009 and his save percentage of 78.4 over that span is the lowest for any pitcher with at least 50 save opportunities.

Even with a less-than-reliable closer, the Phillies have been the best team in the National League over the last two seasons, winning an NL-best 190 games (10 more than the second-place Giants). Philadelphia’s potent lineup often allows pitchers a greater margin of error. In six of Lidge’s 16 blown saves since 2009, the Phillies have gone on to win the game. Only Leo Nunez has had more blown saves (seven) in which team has won over that span.

Charlie Manuel said that Jose Contreras would likely start the season as the team’s closer, but setup man Ryan Madson could also see time in that role. Manuel might want to re-think having a closer by committee and instead give the job to Contreras on a full-time basis.

Contreras converted four of his five save opportunities in 2010 and was more effective in save situations than in other relief opportunities. In 18 save situations, Contreras had a 3.21 ERA and an opponents' OPS of .637. In non-save situations, he had a 3.38 ERA and an opponents' OPS of .720.

While Contreras thrived in the closer’s role in 2010, Madson struggled. We mentioned above that Lidge has the lowest save percentage in the majors since 2009 among pitchers with at least 50 save opportunities. When you consider all pitchers with 25 or more save opportunities, that dubious honor now belongs to Madson, who has 15 saves in 26 opportunities (57.7%) over the last two seasons.

If Lidge’s injury turns out to be more serious than anticipated, you don’t have to search hard to find a team that was able to overcome an injury to its All-Star closer in spring training. Minnesota Twins reliever Jon Rauch stepped into Joe Nathan’s rather large shoes after the latter was lost for the season with an elbow injury last March. Rauch saved 20 games prior to the All-Star Break before yielding to midseason acquisition Matt Capps, who was equally effective as the Twins won the AL Central for a second straight season.

Morneau, Nathan welcome sight for Twins

March, 2, 2011
3/02/11
12:34
PM ET
Wednesday on "Baseball Tonight" (3:30 PM ET, ESPN) the Goodyear Express Tour looks at the Minnesota Twins, including news on Joe Nathan, Justin Morneau and how the Twins are shaping up heading into this season.

The Twins won 94 games in 2010, and while that sort of success is not unusual for this organization over the past decade, it was pretty exceptional. Those wins were accomplished with Justin Morneau playing just 81 games, and Joe Nathan missing the entire season with Tommy John surgery.

While the Twins' ability to bounce back from these devastating losses is a testament to the organization, what exactly they were missing shouldn’t be overlooked.

Morneau suffered a concussion on July 7 last year and missed the rest of the season. He took the field last week at spring training for the first time since the injury, but there is no set date for his return to Minnesota's lineup.

The Twins first baseman was the American League MVP in 2006, and a case could be made that he was the leading candidate to win the award last season. At the time of his injury, Morneau ranked either first or second in all of baseball in four categories: batting average (.345); on-base percentage (.437); slugging percentage (.618); and go-ahead RBI (19).

Despite missing half of the 2010 season, no Twins position player was more productive in terms of wins above replacement than Morneau. His WAR was 5.3 in 81 games; the only other Twin last season with a WAR of at least five was Joe Mauer (5.1).

As for Nathan, it’s hard to argue that there’s been a better closer (at least statistically) since 2004. Among relievers with at least 400 innings pitched, Nathan ranked first from 2004 to 2009 in: saves (246); ERA (1.87); opponent batting average (.182); and opponent OPS (.526). Since 2004, Nathan’s had more saves, a lower ERA and more strikeouts per nine innings than Mariano Rivera.

Nathan’s WAR since 2004 is 15.1. Only Rivera’s is higher (17.1) in that span.

Since coming over to the Twins in 2004, Nathan’s presence has allowed the Twins to have one of the most productive/consistent bullpens. Over the past seven seasons, the Twins' bullpen has never ranked outside of the top half of the American League. In fact, their ERA (3.49), opponent OPS (.703) and WHIP (1.29) were better in 2010 without Nathan than in 2009.

All in all, what could be truly frightening for the White Sox, Tigers, Indians and Royals is how good the Twins could be with a full season of production from both Morneau and Nathan.

If Nathan returns to his status as one of the game's best closers, and Morneau picks up where he left off last July, the Twins could be in position to win their third straight American League Central title.

Surprise league leaders

April, 19, 2010
4/19/10
6:43
PM ET
The season is only 2 weeks old, but some surprising names find themselves atop some statistical categories entering Monday.

Who has the most hits in baseball? Odds are prior to the start of the season, you wouldn't have said Scott Podsednik, Placido Polanco or Franklin Gutierrez would lead baseball in hits with 21 on this date. Podsednik leads baseball with a .457 BA.

Even more bizarre, Ivan Rodriguez leads the NL with a .444 BA.

I'm sure everyone thought Jorge Cantu would be the player with the most RBI with 16.

No Joe Nathan, no problem. The Twins Jon Rauch has the most saves with 6.

Felix Hernandez or CC Sabathia have to lead the AL in strikeouts, right? Wrong. That honor goes to the Orioles Brian Matusz with 23, one fewer than Tim Lincecum's ML-leading total 24.

Of course Lincecum leads baseball in K per 9 then... Wrong again. Fellow Giants starter Jonathan Sanchez has a higher K per 9 than any starter in baseball (12.41).

Your ML leader in XBH? None other than Blue Jays SS Alex Gonzalez with 11. In fact 11 of his 17 hits have gone for extra bases.

Stop the presses, a Nationals pitcher leads baseball in ERA. We told you Stephen Strasburg was the real deal. Wait. It's not Strasburg you are talking about? Nope. Livan Hernandez has yet to allow a run in 16 innings this season. In case you missed it, Hernandez' ERA is almost 6 over the last two years. Matt Garza leads the AL in ERA at 0.75.

Obviously the Blue Jays knew Ricky Romero would have the lowest opponent BA among AL starters at this point (.143). Why else would they have traded Roy Halladay? And if you guessed a Cardinals starter led the majors in Opp BA, you guessed right. Except it's not Adam Wainwright or Chris Carpenter we're talking about. We'd be talking about Jaime Garcia, who has held opponents to a .116 BA this season.

Tuesday's 1st pitch: Stairs ties a record

April, 6, 2010
4/06/10
1:53
PM ET
Today’s Trivia: Matt Stairs tied a major league record on Monday just by getting into the game. In making his Padres debut, Stairs has now played for 12 different teams, which ties Deacon McGuire (who played from 1884 to 1912) for the most ever by a position player. Pitchers Mike Morgan and Ron Villone can also claim 12 teams. Stairs had been tied for second with an eclectic group: Royce Clayton, Todd Zeile, Kenny Lofton and Paul Bako. Since breaking into the big leagues in 1992, Stairs has had more than 600 teammates. Who are Stairs’ only two former teammates currently in the Hall of Fame?

Jason Heyward In Context: Jason Heyward was 317 days old when Bobby Cox was hired by the Braves to replace Russ Nixon as manager in 1990. On Monday, as Cox managed his final Opening Day, Heyward stole the show. Not only did Heyward homer in his first career plate appearance, he did so with his first swing, depositing a 2-0 Carlos Zambrano pitch deep to right. That won’t do much to lessen the hype surrounding the phenom, who is just 20 years and 240 days old right now. Let’s put his accomplishment in context:

-- According the Elias Sports Bureau, Heyward is the youngest player to homer in his first at-bat since Cincinnati’s Ted Tappe in 1950. Whitey Lockman was 20 days shy of his 19th birthday when he hit a home run in his first at-bat for the Giants in 1945. That makes Heyward the third youngest to do it according to Elias.

-- Perhaps the Braves should start more rookies on Opening Day. Last year, Jordan Schafer homered in the opener in his first career plate appearance. He was the first rookie to start on Opening Day for the Braves since Chipper Jones. Before Schafer, the last player to homer on Opening Day in his first plate appearance was Kazuo Matsui in 2004. Before that it was Will Clark in 1986.

-- Another gem from Elias: Only two players who homered in their first major league at-bat are in the Hall of Fame: Earl Averill (who did it for the 1929 Indians) and Hoyt Wilhelm (for the 1952 New York Giants). It was the only home run of Wilhelm's big league career.

-- Baseball Tonight researcher Mark Simon points out that Frank Howard’s 382 career homers are the most ever for a player who hit a home run in his first game. Other notables: Orlando Cepeda, Yogi Berra, Bobby Bonds.

Quote of the Day: "I was yelling 'Balk' as soon as he threw it." - Phillies catcher Brian Schneider on President Obama’s pitch, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Today’s Leaderboard: It’s April, which means it is Joe Saunders’ month to shine. The Angels lefty, who makes his season debut tonight against the Twins, is 10-1 in April in his career. That’s the best April win percentage of any pitcher (minimum 10 decisions) over the last 50 years. Among active players, Joe Nathan’s 9-1 April record is the next best. April magic will be put to its greatest test on Thursday when Dontrelle Willis and his 14-2 record take the hill.

Matchups of the Day: A pair of interesting head-to-head battles in Anaheim tonight. Bobby Abreu is a lifetime .538 hitter against Nick Blackburn. Only Chone Figgins (.563) has flummoxed Blackburn more. (Side note: Figgins draws Dallas Braden tonight, against whom he is a .538 hitter.) But there’s an even more intriguing matchup to watch: Joe Mauer is 0-8 lifetime against Joe Saunders. His last three at-bats were infield groundouts. Mike Mussina is the only other pitcher against whom Mauer is hitless in at least eight at-bats.

Trivia Answer: Stairs’ longest stop on his odyssey was in Oakland from 1996 to 2000. In 1998, he played with Rickey Henderson. His second Hall of Fame teammate is a bit tougher to get, but Baseball-Reference.com’s Oracle tool comes to the rescue. In his initial cup of coffee with the Expos in 1992 (13 games), Stairs teamed up with Gary Carter, who was in his final season.

The case against ERA & introducing RPA

March, 31, 2010
3/31/10
12:00
PM ET
Picture this: Top of the 9th inning, two out, men on second and third and the home team is up three. With the setup man unable to finish the game, the manager calls on the closer who he was trying to rest. The crowd goes wild as the bullpen doors open, but the noise quickly turns to silence as the closer gives up a two-run double. With the lead down to one run, the crowd rallies to the aid of the closer who induces a harmless ground ball. Game over.

Final stat line for the closer: (Save) 1/3 IP, 0 R, 0 ER, H, 0 BB, 0 K.

ERA: 0.00

Situations similar to this occur somewhat frequently in baseball. For years pitchers have been judged on ERA, wins, losses, saves and strikeouts. While this formula may work for starters, it leaves a lot to be desired for relievers. Relievers can’t be evaluated by ERA. ERA is based on 9 innings and most relievers rarely pitch more than an inning or two per game. Runs, and even more importantly, inherited runs scored are far more important in measuring a reliever’s success.

Now, you may be wondering how unearned runs can be counted against a reliever. It doesn’t seem fair does it? Well, the reality is relievers have one job to do: Come into the game, and get out of jams. Whether a reliever comes in with the bases loaded or no one on base, his job remains the same. That job, again, is to come into the game and leave the game with the score the same way as when they entered.

So, with this in mind I set out to create a stat that took into account the two most important stats for a reliever: runs allowed, and inherited runs scored. Rather than divide this number by innings, I chose to divide by appearances.

The result is the following formula that I dubbed “Runs Per Appearance” (RPA): Runs allowed plus inherited runs scored divided by pitching appearances.

The results are simple, like the formula. Good pitchers had solid RPA averages while pitchers who were helped by errors and inherited runs scoring and not their own, were exposed. Check out the results below.



Here's another way to illustrate it. While both Jamey Wright (4.33 ERA last season) and Manny Acosta (4.34 ERA) had similar ERAs, their RPAs (1.123 and .639 respectively) differed greatly. The league average among all relievers last season was .935. That takes into account all long relievers, closers, setup men, and specialists. So Wright had a below-average performance in terms of RPA while Acosta actually had an above-average season in terms of RPA. His .639 RPA is far from Mariano Rivera or Joe Nathan status, but it was most certainly above average for a reliever.

Is (R)uns (P)er (A)ppearance (RPA) a perfect stat? Absolutely not. However, RPA does tell a much more accurate story for relievers than ERA. If nothing else, this should be something interesting to track in 2010.

Why Nathan's loss won't kill the Twins

March, 11, 2010
3/11/10
10:30
AM ET
Should we really expect the Twins to win six fewer games because of Joe Nathan's season-ending injury? Not at all -- the number is actually less than half that.

Even if you believe Nathan's more than six wins better than a Triple-A scrub, that number overstates the actual effect on the Twins bullpen. Why? Because the scrub won't directly replace Nathan. He'll be replaced by one of the better relievers already on the team, and everyone else will move up one rung. This is known as bullpen chaining. And it matters because, in general, the innings pitched by a closer are more important than those pitched by a setup man, which in turn are more important than those pitched by relievers lower on the ladder. By leveraging their bullpens to allow runs when they matter less and prevent runs when it matters more, teams can win more games without giving up fewer runs.

Thanks to Tom Tango, FanGraphs provides a statistic that measures the importance of every situation, called leverage index (LI for short). Here's what you need to know:
  • The average situation (think of the starting pitcher's role) has an LI of 1.
  • Closers appear in situations with an LI of about 2, meaning runs allowed by closers are typically twice as harmful as the average run.
  • Setup men will see LIs in the 1.3 to 1.5 range.

What can we do with leverage index? Well, combined with bullpen chaining, we can compare the Twins' bullpen with and without Nathan. First, here's a simplified view of what the Twins bullpen would have looked like with Nathan:


Note: RAR is runs above replacement, which compares a pitcher's ERA to the replacement level ERA for relievers (about 4.75), converts that to runs saved based on the number of innings pitched, and then multiplies by leverage index to account for the importance of the runs saved.

That's a good-but-not-great bullpen, and is definitely carried by Nathan's superstar talent. Now here's the situation if I remove his innings, bump everyone else's leverage index up a bit, and hand the least important innings to the scrub:


Yikes. That bullpen will only strike fear into the hearts of Giants hitters. Quantitatively, the Nathan-less group is expected to allow 26 additional leveraged runs, or about 2.6 wins worth.

More important to my main point, notice that Nathan's RAR total from the first table implies a value of 33 runs compared to a replacement closer. That 33 number would hold if the scrub took over the closer's role, but because of bullpen chaining, the loss of Nathan is mitigated by three-quarters of a win. That might not sound like much, but the Twins' bullpen is set up to feel the loss of its closer more than most bullpens. If Nathan were a less dominant reliever or if there were a backup option who could post an ERA in the low 3.00s, losing Nathan might only have cost around two wins. Six wins? No way.

Epilogue: I'm not married to the IP and ERA numbers in the table (they're roughly adapted from the CHONE projection system), so feel free to mess around with your own bullpen setups below. Here are some tips:
  • Change the green cells, but don't touch the orange cells -- they're calculations.
  • The average bullpen throws around 490 innings, but that's not set in stone
  • The average LI for the whole bullpen should be around 1
  • Good LI's to use: closer = 1.8, setup = 1.4, a few around 1 and the rest at 0.7 or less
  • For good, objective projections, check out CHONE and ZiPS at baseballprojection.com, baseballthinkfactory.org, and fangraphs.com
  • RAR is runs above replacement, which is (4.75 - ERA) * IP/9 * LI [4.75 is the approximate ERA of a replacement level scrub reliever]
  • LI is leverage index, the average importance of the situations a pitcher faces. One is average. More at fangraphs.com.




Feel free to distribute and modify the spreadsheet. Please keep all credits intact and don't sell it. Much thanks to Tom Tango and the insidethebook.com/ee community for their help understanding bullpen chaining. For more on bullpen chaining, go here.

Sky Kalkman writes for Beyond the Box Score.

SPONSORED HEADLINES