Top 20 Volcanoes players of all time: #3 Joe Nathan

Joe Nathan pitched for the Minnesota Twins for seven seasons and is the franchise’s all-time leader in saves (Jim McIssac/Getty Images).

At #3 on the Keizertimes list of the 20 greatest Volcanoes players of all time is Joe Nathan — a right-handed closer who appeared in six All-Star Games and is arguably one of the greatest closers of all time.

Nathan was a flamethrower and had the ability to touch the high 90s with his four-seam fastball. He also had a slider in the high 80s, which was his best swing-and-miss pitch.

Early on in his baseball career, Nathan was an infielder. After graduating from Pine Bush High School in New York in 1992, Nathan stayed local and committed to play baseball at Stony Brook University — which, at the time, was a Division III school. Nathan was primarily used as a shortstop, but would come in to pitch occasionally.

Despite attending a small school, scouts began to notice his strong arm, along with his pitcher’s body — Nathan is listed at 6-foot-4. However, on a day where numerous scouts were in attendance to watch Nathan pitch, the game was rained out. Scouts instead watched him in a throwing session.

Nathan was drafted by the San Francisco Giants in the sixth round of the 1995 Major League Baseball (MLB)Draft. In his first season as a professional, Nathan did not pitch and exclusively played infield. But he only batted .232 in 56 games in Single-A with the Bellingham Giants.

In the offseason, the San Francisco organization told Nathan that in order to realize his Major League dream, he would need to switch positions. Nathan was disheartened and even left the game for a year to go back to school and get his degree from Stony Brook. However, in 1997, Nathan returned to the organization and began his development as a pitcher.

Nathan pitched for the Volcanoes in 1997 and went 2-1 with a 2.47 ERA in 62 innings. He spent the majority of the 1998 season in advanced Single-A with San Jose, going 8-6 with a 3.32 ERA and 118 strikeouts in 22 starts.

While he began the 1999 season in Double-A, Nathan was called up by the Giants and made his MLB debut on April 21, 1999. Nathan threw seven scoreless innings in his first MLB game, leading the Giants to a 4-0 victory over the Florida Marlins. He went back and forth between the Giants and the Triple-A Fresno Grizzlies for the remainder of the year. Nathan went 7-4 with a 4.18 ERA in 14 starts for the Giants.

Nathan had a short stint in the minors in 2000, but played the majority of the year for the Giants. However, he greatly struggled with his command. Nathan walked 63 batters in 93.1 innings and had a 5.21 ERA. Nathan also landed on the disabled list multiple times throughout the season with issues in his throwing shoulder.

Nathan wound up getting surgery on his injured shoulder and spent 2001 and most of 2002 rehabbing in the minors.

When he rejoined the Giants in 2003, Nathan was exclusively used as a setup man out of the bullpen, which is when he began to have a lot of success.

Nathan threw 23 consecutive scoreless innings to begin the season. From July 18 to Aug. 20, Nathan also had 15 consecutive appearances where he didn’t allow a run. Nathan was one of the most used pitchers in baseball in 2003, appearing in 78 games and posting a 12-4 record with a 2.96 ERA and 83 strikeouts — his 12 wins in relief was the best mark in MLB.

The Giants won the National League (NL) West division but lost in the division series to the Marlins, who went on to win the 2003 World Series.

Before the 2004 season, Nathan was traded to the Minnesota Twins along with former Volcano players Boof Bonser and Francisco Liriano. During spring training, the Twins elected to make Nathan their closer. It was considered a risky move at the time considering that Nathan only had recorded one save at this point in his career. But the move ended up paying dividends for Minnesota.

From April 15 to June 4, Nathan allowed no runs in 20 appearances and recorded 14 saves during that timespan. He won an American League (AL) Co-Player of the Week award in May and was selected to his first All-Star Game. He was the only player from Minnesota selected for the game and he pitched a perfect seventh inning.

Nathan continued to impress after the all-star break as he finished the season with 44 saves in 47 opportunities and an ERA of 1.62. The Twins won the AL Central, and faced the New York Yankees in the AL Division Series (ALDS). Nathan picked up his first playoff save in game one, but he blew a save in game two as the Yankees won the series in four games.

Nathan ended up finishing fourth in Cy Young voting in 2004 and 12th in AL MVP voting. He picked up right where he left off to begin the 2005 season, allowing no earned runs in 15 appearances from April 5 to May 10. Nathan led the AL in saves for the first half of the season, converting 23 of 25, and also won an AL Player of the Week award in June. Nathan’s success earned him a second straight trip to the All-Star Game.

As good as he was in the first half of 2005, Nathan was even more dominant in the second half of the season, posting a 6-1 record with 18 saves in 20 chances, becoming the third pitcher in franchise history to record consecutive 40-save seasons. Nathan ended the year with a 7-4 record and a 2.70 ERA with 94 strikeouts.

In 2006, Nathan converted his 100th career save against the Chicago Cubs on June 24. Four days later, Nathan got his 100th save with the Twins, becoming the fifth player in franchise history to reach that mark.

Despite not being selected to his third straight All-Star Game, Nathan continued to establish himself as one of the best closers in baseball. In July, Nathan was named the MLB Delivery Man of the Month, converting all nine of his save opportunities and posting a 0.75 ERA for the month. Nathan also overtook Eddie Guardado for second on the Twins all-time saves list on Sept. 9, 2006, earning his 117th save against the Detroit Tigers.

Nathan went 7-0 on the season with a 1.58 ERA and 95 strikeouts to go along with his 36 saves — which made him the first player in Twins history to earn 35 saves in three straight seasons. Nathan’s 61 appearances were the highest in the AL while opponents batted just .158 against him. Nathan placed fifth in Cy Young voting and the Twins won the AL Central for the second time in three years.

Even though the Twins had a disappointing season in 2007, Nathan still played at an extremely high level, converting 37 of his 41 save opportunities for the season. For the third year in a row, Nathan was named a finalist for the Reliever of the Year award after posting a 1.88 ERA and 77 strikeouts over 71.2 innings.

In 2008, the Twins re-signed Nathan to a four-year, $47 million contract. After converting 27 of his first 29 save opportunities, Nathan made his return to the All-Star Game. He finished the year with a 1.33 ERA, which was a career-best, and 39 saves.

One of the best seasons of Nathan’s career came in 2009 when he led MLB with a career-high of 47 saves, which was a new franchise record. At the end of the year, Nathan was awarded the AL Relief Man of the Year Award. 

However, Nathan couldn’t duplicate his regular season success in the playoffs as he blew a save in game two of the ALDS against the Yankees — the Twins lost the series in three games.

Nathan was sidelined for the entire 2010 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery to repair an injured elbow. Nathan struggled in his return to the team in 2011 and lost his role as the closer. However, on Aug. 10, 2011, Nathan became the Twins franchise leader in saves.

The Twins elected not to renew Nathan’s contract in the offseason, which made him a free agent. He wound up signing a two-year deal with the Texas Rangers.

Nathan had a great bounce-back season in 2012, finishing the year with an ERA of 2.80 and 37 saves. He also made his fifth all-star appearance. 

Nathan pitched even better for the Rangers in 2013, going 6-2 with a 1.39 ERA and 43 saves. On April 8, 2013, Nathan recorded the 300th save of his career against the Tampa Bay Rays. He also made it to his sixth All-Star Game and recorded the save for the AL.

In the offseason, Nathan signed a two-year, $20 million deal with the Detroit Tigers. Although his ERA ballooned up to 4.81 in 2014, Nathan still earned 35 saves for the Tigers, He made one appearance in the postseason for Detroit and retired all three batters he faced.

Nathan appeared in only one game with the Tigers in 2015. He once agains had to endure Tommy John surgery after re-injuring his throwing elbow.

Nathan signed a minor league deal with the Cubs in 2016. He spent the first 60 days of the seasons on the disabled list recovering from his Tommy John Surgery. However, Nathan was released after just three games. He was signed by the team that drafted him, the Giants, and appeared in seven games for San Francisco.

On Sept. 3, 2017, Nathan signed a one-day contract with Minnesota to officially retire from baseball as a member of the Twins. He is the Twins franchise leader in saves, single-season saves, highest strikeout-to-walk ratio and most consecutive save opportunities converted.

Nathan ended his career with the eighth most saves in MLB history (377) — 376 of which were in the AL, which is second most in league history. He also retired with an 89.3% save percentage, which is the highest among players with at least 200 saves.

Nathan’s had four seasons with 35 saves, a sub-1.89 ERA and sub-1.00 WHIP, which is tied for the most of all time. His nine seasons of 35 saves or more and four seasons of 40 saves or more are each the third most in MLB history.

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