The not-so-curious-case of Joe Nathan

Roughly one year after Joe Nathan tore his UCL he is back on the mound in Fort Meyers throwing with some decent pop.

Although as a native Minnesotan I tend to be an eternal Twins optimist, when Nathan suffered the injury I boldly predicted he would never be a serviceable MLB closer again. Much of the basis for this statement came from watching Francisco Liriano return from the same surgery in 2006.

The process was slow and calculated. Liriano didn’t throw a single pitch in 2007 and only legitimately returned to the club at the end of 2008 (following a short, unsuccessful stint during the beginning of the season). 2009, Liriano’s first full season back was borderline disasterous. The starter went 5-13 with a 5.80ERA and 1.55 whip. His velocity was way down and his accuracy was non-existent—he regularily left pitches up around the belt, surrendering 21 bombs in 136.2 innings. By the end of the 2010 season Liriano had been relegated to the bullpen.

It wasn’t until 2010, more than three years after Tommy John surgery, that Liriano resembled his younger self. Fully recovered, Liriano does not posses the pop he had years ago with both his fastball and slider a few miles per hour slower than his rookie year. Because Liriano is a starter he’s been able to adapt to a loss in velocity—pitching to contact and letting his stellar D play behind him.

So, when Joe Nathan went under the knife in spring of 2010, things did not look good. While every person reacts to surgery differently, applying Liriano’s timetable to Joe Nathan seemed disastrous. The 36 year-old simply didn’t have three years to fully recover and playoff closers throwing in the low 90’s have difficulties getting outs.

Thus far, Joe Nathan has proved critics wrong. He was back on the mound less than a year after surgery and throwing in the low 90’s—which is normal early in spring training. Additionally, Nathan has been impressed with his location and overall effectiveness. Minnesota’s closer has gone four innings this spring training without surrendering a hit, while walking two and striking out two.

Obviously its only spring training and little to nothing should be made from Grapefruit league stats, however it appears that Nathan has indeed rehabbed his arm in less than a year. Only time will tell if Nathan will be the lights-out closer he was a few years ago but one thing’s for sure: Nathan has already experienced a relatively fast recovery. Look for the Twins to be at the back end of the bullpen with a Joe Nathan, Matt Capps duo.

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