Texas Rangers relief pitcher Joe Nathan collected his career 300th save against the Tampa Bay Rays April 8 and continues to add to his lifetime total. Credit: Jim Cowsert-USA TODAY Sports

Joe Nathan Joins 300-Save Club

Texas Rangers closer Joe Nathan came into the 2013 season with 298 career saves and he very quickly added two more to lift his lifetime total for 300, making him a member of an elite corps of relievers who have reached that mark.

The 6-foot-4, 230-pound right-hander has added three more saves already this month, so as long as he stays healthy he will be jumping up the charts all season long.

There are a select group of individual milestone targets that Major League players chase. For hitters, historically reaching 3,000 hits or 500 home runs pretty much guaranteed you a plaque in the Baseball Hall of Fame. However, due to the recent spate of cases where players were accused of taking performance-enhancing drugs to help their games, that is no longer an absolute. The same was true for 300-game winners among starting pitchers and iffiness of enshrinement parallels the hitters’ situation.

Given that Major League baseball records date to 1876, the save is relatively new. The save as an official baseball statistc has been kept since 1969 and it was created due to the lobbying of the late Chicago baseball writer Jerome Holtzman. Historians have gone back and re-examined the performances of older relievers to reconstruct their save totals, but basically all of the highest save totals have been compiled in the last 40 years.

That reflects the growing reliance on relievers by managers and it reflects various re-definitions of what constitutes a save. At this point in time there is no career save total that guarantees a relief pitcher selection to the Hall in Cooperstown. The treatment of Lee Smith in Hall of Fame voting makes that clear. Smith not only held the record for the most saves in history for years, but he is still third on the all-time list with 478 and can’t make a breakthrough in the voting.

At the same time the current record-holder, Yankees closer Mariano Rivera, who came into the season with 608 saves and has added four more so far, hardly ever has his name mentioned without the phrase “future Hall of Famer” attached to it. No. 2 on the all-time saves list in Trevor Hoffman with 601.

Rich “Goose” Gossage and Bruce Sutter have been voted into the Hall of Fame. Gossage had 310 saves, Sutter 300 on the dot, but also had a losing record at 68-71. Dominance is in the eye of the beholder.

With Nathan’s ascension to the 300-save level, there are now 24 guys in the 300-club. Most are retired. Francisco Rodriguez is knocking on the door with 294.

Here is the top 10: 1) Rivera; 2) Hoffman; 3) Smith; 4) John Franco, 424; 5) Billy Wagner, 422; 6. Dennis Eckersley, 390; 7) Jeff Rearden 367; 8) Troy Percival 358; 9) Randy Myers 347; 10) Rollie Fingers 341.

Eckersley is in the Hall of Fame, but he also spent considerable time during his career as a starter and won 197 games. Among those not in the Hall of Fame, John Smoltz‘s pitching career most closely approximates Eckersley’s. Smoltz had 213 wins and 154 saves. Fingers is in the Hall of Fame as a pure reliever.

The list of 300-save men not in the Hall consists of John Wetteland, 330, Francisco Cordero, 329, Roberto Hernandez, 326, Jose Mesa, 321, Todd Jones, 319, Rick Aguilera, 318, Robb Nen, 314, Tom Henke, 311, Jeff Montgomery, 304, Doug Jones, 303, and Jason Isringhausen, 300.

Anyone who has collected 300 saves has accomplished something. It takes a long time to accumulate that many. Most of the players on this list had flawed careers, sometimes due to injury, and sometimes they were moved to the bullpen because they failed as starters. The fact that they acquired as many as 300 saves shows they did an awfully lot right, too.

Nathan has a lifetime record of 51-28 with a 2.86 earned run average. Like many long-time closers–he is 38–Nathan has had seasons where it seemed as if he could not get anyone out and seasons when it seemed futile for batters to bother checking in.

At Nathan’s age you have to wonder how long he can keep going. Nathan has appeared in 654 games, but thrown only 800 innings. He hasn’t started a game since 2000. That is unlikely to change.

As a true closer, Nathan is going to keep taking the call for one batter, two, or even three at a time, but no more. He may not gain as much attention as a Rivera, but if Nathan has a 35-save year, which he is definitely on pace for, he could be on the edge of the top-10 all-time by October.

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