Robb Nen – a Retrospective

A brief look back at the toe-tapping flamethrower. We miss you, Robby.

“Smoke on the Water” played for the first (and presumably last) time in a while this past weekend, as the San Francisco Giants honored the career of their former closer Robb Nen. Saturday’s game allowed fans to reflect upon and cheer once more the man who would come into the ballgame throwing nothing but smoke and an are-you-kidding-me slider. For those who’ve already forgotten or never had the opportunity to witness the man pitch, I offer this brief retrospective.

The franchise leader in saves and velocity, Nen was last seen in the fateful game six of the 2002 World Series. He struck out Adam Kennedy to end the eighth inning, but not before allowing two inherited runners to score, including the eventual game winner, off a double by Troy Glaus. Yet the fact that Nen was even in the ballgame was a testament to his desire to win – he was pitching with a severely injured shoulder, one that would eventually cost him his career.

This shouldn’t be our lasting memory of the man. During his first season with the Giants in 1998, I convinced my friends to stick around until the end of a blowout at the beginning of the season because we could hear the pop of the catcher’s mitt as he was warming up. My friend and I were, by the way, sitting in a nosebleed section.

The son of Major League first baseman Dick Nen, Robb Nen was born Robert Allen Nen on November 28, 1969 in San Pedro, CA. He was twice a teammate of current Giants first baseman J.T. Snow – first in high school then later in the big leagues. Not highly touted, Nen was drafted in the 32nd round of the 1987 amateur draft by the Texas Rangers. He made his Major League debut in 1993 with the Rangers, but was traded to the expansion Florida Marlins that season after only nine appearances.

He first made a name for himself in Miami. In the same bullpen with closer Bryan Harvey and a young Trevor Hoffman, Nen had few opportunities and initially struggled. But when Harvey went down with an injury in 1994, Nen was given a few opportunity to close games, and finished the year with 15 saves and respectable numbers (a 2.95 ERA and 60 Ks in 58 innings). Nen finished 1996 with a sub-2.00 era, and would subsequently have one of the most bizarre Jekyll-and-Hyde career in terms of ERA, alternating in ERAs between 1-something and 3-something every year during 1995-2001.

After winning the World Series with Florida in 1997, the cost-cutting Marlins traded Nen to San Francisco in exchange for pitchers Joe Fontenot, Mike Pageler, and Mike Villano in one of the most lopsided trades ever. The rest, they say, is part of Giants lore. Nen spent five seasons in orange and black, but spent the last two years black and blue, as he tried several times in vain to rehab from his badly injured shoulder.

Suffice to say, though, the man had stuff. Ridiculous stuff. Since it is rather difficult to describe in words how nasty his stuff was, we should let his numbers do the talking:

• A career mark of 793 strikeouts in 715 innings, including a career-high of 110 in 88+ innings during his first year as a Giant.
• That same season, his ERA was 1.52. He topped that two seasons later, with a 1.50 in 2000.
• 314 career saves, and 206 as a Giant (Rod Beck is second on the all-time Giants list with 199).
• Led the NL in saves with 45 in 2001.
• Sporting News NL Fireman of the Year in 2001.
• 3-time All-Star (1998, 1999, 2002).
• Fourth in Cy Young Award voting in 2000.
• Led the league in most finished games in a season three times (1995, 1999, 2001)

Somewhat like Juan Marichal, however, Nen might be overlooked because of the era in which he pitched, since his contemporaries included closers like Mariano Rivera, John Wetteland, and Hoffman. But in the end, Robb Nen’s legacy in baseball is a combination of stats, stuff, and heart that transcends mere description. He was a pleasure to watch.

Don Shin eats, breathes, thinks, and bleeds in Orange and Black. Pac Bell Park officially opened on his 25th birthday (the one year he decided to move out of the Bay Area!!!). For the 2000 playoff drive, he dyed his hair orange while studying in Korea. He watched Game 6 of the '02 World Series at a restaurant in LA, and couldn't finish his meal afterwards. Feel free to write him at to commiserate, cheer, and complain.

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