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Honoring Joe Nelson

Last week the Joe Nelson Era in Kansas City abruptly and unceremoniously came to an end, with the Royals outrighting Nelson to AAA, followed by Nelson becoming a free agent. While it remains unlikely that Nelson will return to the Royals, we'll always have 2006, when Joe, a minor league lifer came out of nowhere to be a solid arm out of the bullpen. As any Royals fan can tell you, these are the kinds of things that always seem to happen to other teams. Then, in true Royals fashion, Nelson got injured, hit the DL, and suffered a lost season in 2007. While the emergence of Joakim Soria and the brief appearance of Octavio Dotel lessened the blow, the bully still suffered without him. Obviously, the timing of the injury was much worse for Joe, even tragically so, as he was just about to be in line for a big payday. The kind of payday that makes a difference between being comfortable and well-off, and being set for life.

Joe Nelson, everyman.

Lets take a look at Nelson's big league career to date:

  • 2001 ATL: Two one-inning appearances with the Braves in June. Joe allows big innings each time, and is sent back to back to the minors with a 36.00 ERA.
  • 2004 BOS: After being signed, then released, then re-signed by Boston, Joe eventually appears with the Red Sox for three July games. Joe works a scoreless 9th against Texas in a 14-6 blowout, but then allows big innings in his next two appearances against the Angels and Mariners. With a season ERA now at 16.88, Nelson is sent packing. On October 5th, 2004, Nelson is granted free agency. Still, Nelson, along with former Royal never-was Dave McCarty, recieved a World Series Ring.
  • 2006 KC: In 2005, Nelson bounced from three organizations (NYM, TB, STL) before signing with the Royals in November, an event totally unremarked-upon on this site. Nelson made his Royal debut on April 17th, but didn't become a bullpen regular until late May, when Buddisimo began turning to him consistently. (Nelson's game log here.) After racking up five holds -- a stat now tarnished by Rafael Betancourt's sheer, radical evil and deception -- Nelson notched his first career save on August 15th against the White Sox. Reportedly, Buddy cited his 2004 mop-up appearance with the Red Sox as the evidence he knew Nelson had the proper moxie to finish a game. No, not really.
As we know, Nelson went on to pick up nine more saves over the next month, before blowing a 1-0 Luke Hudson-based lead on September 29th to the Twins. For the season, Nelson ended up posting a 4.43 ERA in 44.7 IP. Previewing the 2007 Andy Sisco Award, I summed up Nelson's season thusly:
Last season while flashier Royal stoppers struggled to get people out, a 31 year old Joe Nelson emerged out of nowhere to be quietly effective. Nelson threw up goose-eggs in his first 6 appareances (5.2 innings) and owned a nifty 1.11 ERA as late as August 4th. Despite some ugly August innings, Nelson finished the season with a 4.43 ERA, shutting down the Tigers for 2.2 innings in the Royals 10-8 victory which ended the season.

Why is he a candidate for a Sisco? Just in terms of sheer time, for most of the year Nelson had a really low ERA, and as with Hudson, thanks to his team context, he looked like a godsend. Nonetheless, this perception is a function of how baseball statistics are shown on TV and online from game 1, allowing hot starts to obscure later stretches of bad play. As the league saw more of Nelson and Nelson's arm exerted more effort, results declined. In August he allowed an 8.49 ERA in 11.2 innings, this following a 1.69 ERA in July. So who is the real Joe Nelson? Probably the guy the Royals ended up with, a short-innings guy with a ERA 4.84, slightly below average against the league, even more so against fellow relievers who have a lower ERA threshold. Nelson is no spring chicken, doesn't have overpowering stuff that only needs to be utilized effectively (see MacDougal, Mike) and the scouting report on him is out, especially in the AL Central.

Its tough to read that now. Not because it was necessarily wrong, or even that harsh, but simply because now is the time to honor Joe Nelson, not to focus on his limitations. Had Nelson stayed healthy, he might have gone on to greatness in 2007, or he might have struggled and picked up the Sisco Award, we'll never know. While we do joke a lot about grittiness and guts and the mythos of veteran presence and all the rest on this site (and for good reason, too), you can't deny that Joe Nelson has shown a dogged determination to live his dream. And who, really, can honestly answer the same?

Since being drafted in 1996, Nelson has pitched, and in some sense, lived, in the following places: Eugene, Durham, Greenville, Richmond, Atlanta, Jamestown, Trenton, Portland, Boston, Pawtucket, Springfield (Tx), Omaha and Kansas City. Sure, being a minor league baseball player isn't the same as working at the Wal-Mart in Normal Illinois, and its certainly exciting and invigorating in a way to live a life on the road. Nevertheless, without stooping to stupidity or sentimentality, its clear that Joe Nelson has hung in, persisted and all the rest.

And in 2007 it should have paid off. He'd show the world that he could get American League hitters out with the Royals, and with another decent year under his belt, he could have cashed in on that success for another five or seven years. Instead, he hurt his shoulder, and went on the 60 day DL. Yes, he earned a healthy salary of almost $400,000 in 2007, but he also put in nearly a decade in the minors to get there. Honestly, his payout is probably smaller than if he'd just gone to law school, considering law school is only three years. Moreover, how much will he make in baseball going forward? How many more chances with a big league team will he get? Its very hard to say.

Nevertheless, Nelson, in the waning summer of a  mostly dismal 2006 season, carved out a place in team history, and now ranks 25th in Royals history in saves. At the same time, Nelson proved once again that so much supposedly hallowed and mythical in baseball, especially with regard to the silly saves statistic and its sister RBI, is really a matter of opportunity. If you give the Joe Nelsons of the world a chance, they'll probably perform just as well as any other short-usage reliever not named Papelbon or Rivera. There aren't many instances where a sabermetric truth also carries a satisfying human-interest story, but Joe Nelson's 2006 was that exception.

So let us take this moment to honor Joe Nelson and mark his accomplishments with the Royals. Before those memories fade into oblivion, let us erect this monument here to solidify them! Hopefully, Joe will stay healthy in 2008, and with a little bit more good luck finding his way.