Nen throws his name into Hall ballot
Dominant closer eligible for Cooperstown for first time
SAN FRANCISCO -- At 38, Robb Nen would probably still be pitching if it weren't for the multiple shoulder surgeries that ended his career after the 2002 season.But the approach that ultimately eroded Nen's physical skills also elevated him to the height of his profession as one of baseball's top closers. "I was always going hard every pitch," Nen said. "I gave it everything I had." The integrity of Nen's effort insured him of an eternal place in Giants lore and placed him on the 2008 Hall of Fame ballot in his first year of eligibility. Nen joins one of four closers on the ballot, including fellow right-handers Rod Beck, Goose Gossage and Lee Smith. "When you start playing, you never think this sort of thing is going to happen," Nen said. "Just to be on [the ballot] is an honor. It's just amazing." Nen's performance often bordered on amazing during his 10 Major League seasons. His fastball's sheer velocity enabled him to overpower hitters.
"He was throwing 97 to 100 [mph], so his fastball set everything up regardless," Giants pitching coach Dave Righetti said. "He'd get strike one and it was all over."But the pitch that truly distinguished Nen from other relievers was his slider, which traveled in the low 90s -- about as rapidly as many pitchers' fastballs -- and darted downward like a split-fingered fastball. Nen learned the pitch in the early '90s from Richie Lewis, a Florida Marlins teammate. "If it wasn't for that pitch, I probably wouldn't have had the success I did," said Nen, who ranks 15th all time with 314 saves. "He threw it so hard that it was really difficult to catch," former Giants catcher Brian Johnson said. "That thing was like controlling a snake." Nen's delivery also looked unwieldy. It was effective without being smooth -- "arm speed without fluidity," as Righetti put it. Toward the end of his stride to home plate, Nen also tapped the dirt with his front left foot, creating the impression that he was about to topple over. But Nen coordinated everything into a powerful package. Unlike most hard throwers, he maintained admirable control, issuing an average of 3.27 walks per nine innings -- a figure that shrank to 2.69 in his five seasons with the Giants (1998-2002). He also struck out 9.98 batters per nine innings for his career. As the son of Dick Nen, a former Major League first baseman, Nen grew up with the game.
"I credit 99 percent of my success to him," Robb said.
Dogged by arm problems throughout most of his first six professional seasons in the Rangers organization, Robb drew upon his father's wisdom and support to cope with adversity.
"I was struggling a little bit, and he was a big part of my staying positive," Nen said.After enduring those injuries, Nen's progress accelerated with the help of the late Oscar Acosta, a Rangers pitching coach, and Marcel Lachemann, the Marlins' pitching coach when Nen was traded from Texas to Florida in 1993. Season-ending injuries to Bryan Harvey and Jeremy Hernandez catapulted Nen into the Marlins' closer role in 1994, and he responded by converting his first 15 save opportunities. Nen followed up with 23 saves in 1995, 35 saves in '96 and 35 more in '97, when the Marlins won the World Series. His 108 saves with Florida remain a club record. Nen truly flourished upon being traded to the Giants before the 1998 season. He posted 40 or more saves four times with them and recorded ERAs of 2.20 or below in three seasons. The franchise-record 206 saves that he posted with the Giants ranked second in the National League from 1998-2002 -- behind only Trevor Hoffman's 217 with San Diego. "It was a culmination of a bunch of things," said Nen, who made three All-Star teams with the Giants. "I got more comfortable with the job itself, realizing what it entailed day in and day out." The steadiness of the Giants, who began a stretch of eight consecutive winning seasons in 1997, the year before Nen arrived, also helped him.
"When you succeed that consistently, it makes it that much easier for you, and good things happen," Nen said.Of course, much of that success began with Nen himself. "He was our anchor," Righetti said. "Without him, we don't win anything."
Chris Haft is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.