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Smoltz: Save record for Kimbrel long-time coming

Newson June 3rd, 2014No Comments

ATLANTA — Entering Tuesday night’s late game against the Mariners, Braves closer Craig Kimbrel was one save away from his 155th in an Atlanta uniform — which would break the franchise record set by John Smoltz.

Smoltz, who racked up 154 saves in three seasons and some change as the Braves closer, has been calling for this statistical shift since his Braves’ Hall of Fame induction and jersey retirement, about this time two years ago.

Not only has Smoltz been fully prepared to hand over the mantle to the Braves’ dynamic young closer. But he wouldn’t be Smoltz if he didn’t do it with a challenge:

“He’s going to double the number,” said Smoltz. “You cross your fingers for Kimbrel he stays healthy, and he’s going to save a lot of games.”

Doubling would put Kimbrel into the elite category of closer, with the John Wettelands (330) and Rollie Fingers (341), the Troy Percivals (358) and Jeff Reardons (367). But Smoltz will mention Kimbrel in the same breath as the standard for all closers, Mariano Rivera, who finished his career last year with 652 saves for the Yankees.

“He’s in a rare category of people,” Smoltz said of Kimbrel. “Mariano has always been one in his own. He did it with one pitch and for the amount of years that he did. Craig Kimbrel is what you would define as unhittable. When you want to get out of a jam, when you have the game on the line, he’s that good.”

Closing for Smoltz was more an experiment than a way of life. It was a way to try to ease his workload coming off his Tommy John surgery in 2000. He gained an appreciation for exactly what the job requires, though, and what makes Kimbrel so good.

“I love watching him pitch,” said Smoltz, who often watches live as a part-time analyst for Fox Sports. “I love watching him come in. And he’s got way better stuff than I had for that role. I was just a guy that had 2500 innings and used my experience. I’m not saying I didn’t have good stuff; I may have had more weapons. (But) he had two more dominating-type pitches. That’s what separates him and like an (Aroldis) Chapman.”

Kimbrel has a 99 mph fastball that he mixes with a devastating breaking ball. He has struck out 43% (418-of-969) of his batters

faced during the regular season, the highest strikeout percentage among the elite relievers — those with at least 150 career saves.

Smoltz has always maintained that Kimbrel could get outs just by commanding his fastball. And he’s enjoyed watching Kimbrel, now 26, progress in his approach to hitters over the past five seasons.

Kimbrel spent his first season under the tutelage of Billy Wagner, and the past four on his own.

“We all have to have our own progression of learning, and he went through it a little bit faster,” Smoltz said. “When I saw him under Wagner, you could see almost the progression of like Rivera under Wetteland. Everybody knew when we were going through that, ‘This guy is going to save a lot of games.’ You can’t say that about every eighth inning guy. You can’t say that about a lot of transitional guys.”

Kimbrel came up through the minor leagues as a closer and relishes the role. He didn’t do what Smoltz did, which is keep “one eye on the job, one eye half open for the other one (starting).”

Smoltz returned to the Braves rotation in 2005 and continued to build his Hall of Fame resume based on his versatility. He’s the first major league pitcher to win 200 or more games and save 150 or more.

Smoltz thinks Kimbrel will benefit from the fact that he’s pitching in an era of such specialization, when he’s not likely to pitch in many non-save or four-out situations except during the postseason.

The save total, and the career, will keep taking off, provided he stays healthy.

Kimbrel has already made three straight All-Star appearances and on May 18, he became the youngest pitcher to reach 150 saves for his career.

“Since he’s been there, the Braves have had an edge in the bullpen and it’s solely because — well, it helps having the arms they have — but you know when he comes it’s like ‘game over,’” Smoltz said.

Kimbrel ties Smoltz atop Braves’ all-time saves list

Newson June 1st, 2014No Comments

MIAMI — As he was raised in Alabama, Craig Kimbrel was among the countless Braves fans who used to love watching John Smoltz close games. Kimbrel now has the honor of knowing he has saved as many games as Smoltz did during his stint as Atlanta’s closer.

Kimbrel matched Smoltz’s franchise record of 154 saves when he closed out Saturday afternoon’s 9-5 win at Marlins Park. It appeared he would have to wait at least one more day to reach this mark. But he was summoned out of the Braves’ bullpen after the Marlins put two on with one out in the ninth.

After Kimbrel opened his outing by striking out Derek Dietrich, Ramiro Pena committed an error that loaded the bases. But the 26-year-old Braves closer then ended the game with a Casey McGehee groundout.

“It definitely is [special] to be a part of something like that,” Kimbrel said. “I know if Smoltz had done it his whole career, he would’ve had had a lot more.”

Smoltz’s stint as Braves closer began late in the 2001 season and extended through ’04. During that span, he converted 154 of 169 save opportunities. Kimbrel has been successful with all but 17 of his 171 save opportunities.

Still just 26 years old, Kimbrel is positioned to have many more opportunities and possibly one day approach the records set by Mariano Rivera, Trevor Hoffman and many of the game’s other legendary closers.

Eric Gagne (91.7) and Smoltz (91.1) are the only pitchers in Major League history to record at least 150 saves with a save percentage better than Kimbrel (90.1).

“It is nice to say I’m a part of something like that, but then again, I’ve had a lot of opportunities,” Kimbrel said. “I’ve played on some good ball teams the first three or four years. If it wasn’t for that case, we wouldn’t be sitting here talking about this now. I’m honored to even have the opportunity and the chance. Hopefully we’ll have a lot more opportunities and we win a lot more ballgames.”

Kimbrel piling up K’s as he nears Smoltz record for saves

Newson May 25th, 2014No Comments

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

As he neared John Smoltz’s Braves career record for saves, closer Craig Kimbrel tried to put things into perspective by noting that Smoltz only served as closer for 3-1/2 seasons of a distinguished 21-year career.

But the fact remained, what Kimbrel has done is nonetheless impressive and historically dominant.

Kimbrel, in his fourth season as closer, entered Sunday needing two saves to match Smoltz’s Braves record of 154. Kimbrel considered it an honor.

“It definitely is,” he said. “(Smoltz is) a man I looked up to when I was younger, and still look up to. The things he was able to do in the game of baseball, not only as a closer but as a starter — and to do it as long as he did it, that’s impressive. Nearing a record that he has is pretty special, but he only (served as closer) for four years.

“So I’m getting closer to a record that he did in four years, and not many guys have had the opportunity to do it here in Atlanta for much longer than that.”

Smoltz is the only pitcher in major league history to have many as 200 wins and 150 saves. He closed for 3-1/2 seasons after returning from Tommy John elbow surgery, and in his three full seasons as closer he had save totals of 55 in 2002 (still the franchise record), 45 in 2003 and 44 in 2004.

Kimbrel last season became the second Brave to have a 50-save season and youngest (25) in major league history to do it, notching a career-best 50 while leading the National League in saves and ERA (1.21). He finished fourth in the NL Cy Young Award balloting.

This season he had 13 saves and a 1.96 ERA in 19 appearances before Sunday, and already racked up 36 strikeouts with seven walks in 18 1/3 innings. His 17.7 strikeouts per nine innings was more than 1 ½ strikeouts higher than the next-highest rate among major league pitchers.

In February the Braves signed Kimbrel to a four-year, $42 million extension with a fifth-year option, an unusually large and lengthy contract for closers at a time when the industry trend has been toward shorter deals for what is viewed as the most precarious of major league jobs.

The deal was an obvious indication of how highly the Braves think of Kimbrel, widely viewed as the best in baseball at what he does.

Given his contract, Kimbrel said if he didn’t set the Braves career saves record, “then something’s wrong.” At the same time, he doesn’t take anything for granted.

“I’m just going out there year-by-year,” he said. “Obviously with the contract they’re expecting me to do it for four or five years (more). But my mentality is just day-by-day and season-by-season. Showing up and doing what I have to do.”

The Alabama native’s 89.9 career save percentage rate ranked third in history among closers with at least 150 saves, behind Eric Gagne (91.7) and Smoltz (91.1).

Kimbrel has led or tied for the NL lead in saves in each of his first three seasons as closer, and in 2012 he was the first pitcher in baseball’s live-ball era to strike out 50 percent of the batters he faced, fanning 116 of 231. He was the 2011 NL Rookie of the Year after leading all major league relievers with 127 strikeouts.

He has struck out a remarkable 44 percent of the batters he’s faced in his career, which makes Kimbrel the runaway leader in that category among closers with 150 or more saves. Next on the list: Billy Wagner, a one-time Brave who struck out 33 percent of the batters he faced in a career that included 422 saves and 1,196 strikeouts.

Kimbrel struck out all three Colorado batters he faced in the ninth inning Friday in his 13th save of the season, after striking out three in a row following a leadoff hit-by-pitch Thursday against the Rockies.

“Strikeouts are fun,” he said. “They don’t always attest to how you’re pitching; you can go out there and strike out the side and give up two runs. (But) they do help you get out of situations. I don’t know, I can feel great for a while and not strike anybody out. Or feel awful and strike everybody out.”

He had a 1.00 ERA and .155 opponents’ average in his past 73 appearances since May 9, 2013, allowing 39 hits (one homer) and 24 walks with 113 strikeouts in 72 innings over that period, while converting 53 of 56 save opportunities

Kimbrel becomes youngest to record 150 saves

Newson May 19th, 2014No Comments

As Craig Kimbrel sauntered through the Braves clubhouse late Monday afternoon, he said he had not yet been presented with the baseball he threw to record his 150th career save on Sunday. But at the same time, he did not seem too concerned.

“I don’t look at it like it’s going to be my last,” Kimbrel said.

According to STATS, Kimbrel became the youngest pitcher (25 years and 355 days) to record 150 saves, and he did so in the fourth-fewest amount of save opportunities (167). The three pitchers who needed fewer opportunities were Eric Gagne (156), John Smoltz (163) and Joe Nathan (166).

Having had the unique opportunity to serve as a full-time closer throughout his rookie season, Kimbrel reached the mark in fewer career appearances (248) than any pitcher in Major League history.

“I don’t worry about the numbers,” Kimbrel said. “I just go out there and do my job when I need to.”

Kimbrel entered Monday four saves shy of tying Smoltz’s franchise record. Smoltz notched his 154th and final save for the Braves in his 168th opportunity on Oct. 2, 2004.

Kimbrel given night off with soreness in shoulder

Newson April 15th, 2014No Comments

PHILADELPHIA — When David Carpenter entered Monday night’s game to serve as the Braves’ closer against the Phillies, the obvious question was, Where’s Craig Kimbrel?

So after the Braves’ wild, 9-6 win, Kimbrel, who has been around long enough to know what was coming, looked back from his locker and laughed.

“You want to talk to me?” Kimbrel said. “I didn’t play.”

Kimbrel was given the night off after experiencing some soreness in his shoulder on Saturday night after he picked up his fifth save in as many chances this season in a win over the Nationals.

The Braves are being careful with their most valuable bullpen piece, which is understandable, but they didn’t appear overly concerned, saying that a day or two of rest is all that’s needed.

“It’s something that I’ve felt through Spring Training,” said Kimbrel, who is 10 saves shy of John Smoltz’s franchise record of 154. “It’s not anything on the field. It’s just a little uncomfortable. [I’ll] just take a few days off. The guys really swung the bat well today.”

“He has a sore shoulder,” manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “We’re going day to day with him.

“Not worried at all. I’m talking to Craig and our trainers. I think it’s one of those things that every reliever goes through. [If we hadn’t gone ahead in the ninth], you guys wouldn’t have even known it. So throughout the course of the season, there are guys that are banged up and they’re not the closer. If it’s not a save situation, nobody would even know, so I’m not concerned at all.”

http://m.mlb.com/video/v32091725/?c_id=atl

Kimbrel, Braves agree to four-year contract

Newson February 16th, 2014No Comments

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Craig Kimbrel no longer has to worry about the arbitration process. More importantly, the Braves have positioned themselves to not have to worry about who is going to handle their closing duties over the next four seasons.

The Braves have signed Kimbrel to a four-year, $42 million contract that includes a $13 million option for the 2018 season. If the option is exercised and all of the potential bonuses are earned, the package has a maximum value of $58.5 million.

Kimbrel’s contract is the largest ever given to a closer who has not yet become a free agent. It also provides him the largest guarantee and average annual value ever given to any first-year arbitration-eligible pitcher.

“I’m very excited,” Kimbrel said. “This is where I wanted to be. I’m glad we were able to come to terms and get this done.

“First of all, I want to thank God for giving me the ability that he has and blessing me to allow my family to be so close to me and be in the place where I’ve grown up always wanting to be. Now, I get to say I get to be here for four or five more years. If I didn’t want to be here, this wouldn’t be going on. I couldn’t be any happier.”

The Braves announced the deal on Sunday morning, approximately 24 hours before they had been scheduled to go to an arbitration hearing that would have determined whether Kimbrel’s 2014 salary would be the team’s offer of $6.55 million or his request of $9 million.

Kimbrel is guaranteed an average salary of $10.5 million over the next four years. If the maximum value is realized, he’ll earn an average of $11.7 million over the next five years.

“I think we had to be creative and as we put the deal together,” general manager Frank Wren said. “There was a lot of creativity at the end to try to bridge the gap of being fair to both sides. To his credit, he was willing to bridge it in a creative way. If he continues to perform at this level, he’s going to get more. If he’s just great or just good, then it’s another number. I think it’s a fair concept for both of us.”

Through his first three seasons as Atlanta’s closer, Kimbrel has managed to exceed the lofty expectations he produced during his successful Minor League days, when he was known as “the right-handed Billy Wagner.” In the 210 appearances he has made since the start of the 2011 season, Kimbrel has converted 138 of 153 save opportunities, produced a 1.48 ERA and struck out 42.9 percent of the batters he has faced. No other Major League closer has converted more than 110 saves during this span.

While becoming the youngest pitcher to ever record a 50-save season in 2013, Kimbrel also became the first closer in Major League history to record 40-plus saves in each of his first three full seasons.

“You just look at what he has contributed to the team his first three years in the big leagues,” Wren said. “It’s not only special, it’s historic.”

If Kimbrel extends his recent trend, which has allowed him to draw comparisons to the likes of Wagner and Mariano Rivera, this has the potential to be a team-friendly deal. Had Kimbrel lost Monday’s scheduled hearing and then extended his recent success this upcoming season, he would have been in line to gain a salary between $10-11 million in 2015, which would have been the second of three potential arbitration-eligible seasons.

In the event that Kimbrel would have won this year’s hearing, there would have been reason to wonder if the if the Braves would have to trade him at the end of this upcoming season to delete the risk of him proving to be too expensive during his final two arbitration-eligible seasons.

But after Kimbrel’s agent, David Meter, got the negotiations rolling again last week, it became apparent that the Braves did not want to lose an elite closer, and Kimbrel did not want to say goodbye to a team that he has dreamed of playing for dating back to his childhood days in Huntsville, Ala.

“I want to stay here with a group of guys that I came up with and I’m comfortable with,” Kimbrel said. “In the game of baseball, it’s who you’re around, it’s the team you’re on and the guys you’re surrounded by. We have an awesome core here. I think this is a core that can win for a long time.”

With this agreement, the Braves have taken another major step in their comprehensive plan to keep a solid portion of their talented young core together in preparation of the opening of their new stadium in 2017. Over the past two weeks, the organization has committed more than $220 million with extensions given to Freddie Freeman, Jason Heyward, Julio Teheran and Kimbrel.

“Knowing what it is going to cost us [to keep Kimbrel] over the next five years allows us to put everything in place to carry out the plan,” Wren said. “I talked a little bit about the plan the other day and this is all part of it.”

Kimbrel said the decisions to make the previous commitments to the aforementioned players only increased his desire to stay in Atlanta.

“I can see what we’re doing as an organization and ballclub,” Kimbrel said. “We’re going out to win. As of right now, we’re planning on winning for a long time. This is where I want to be. I want to be closing out division titles and championships and World Series. We’ve got the team to do it and I’m very excited.”

Craig Kimbrel pitches some goodwill for Braves during caravan stop in familiar territory

Newson January 26th, 2014No Comments

MADISON, Alabama – Funny thing about celebrity. The best relief pitcher in the National League has been in this very store two or three times this off-season, with nary a bit of hubbub.

-134cf01cab119d72.jpgPre-schooler Ryelynn Scissom of Grundy County, Tenn., shows her devotion to the Braves’ Craig Kimbrel (Mark McCarter/mmccarter@al.com)

Indeed, it may be part of the player’s appeal, his unassuming persona, the ability to blend in and be lifesized, even as he toils in a world that’s larger than life.

Yet when it is announced that Craig Kimbrel would be here, in this Academy Sports and Outdoors store, to sign autographs as part of the Atlanta Braves annual caravan instead of merely as an anonymous customer, hundreds, maybe even into four-digits, line up inside.

People like Nichole Brown were in the parking lot at 5:30 a.m. Sunday. She and 15 or 20 others were outside the store at 9 a.m. when management let them come in, grab some chairs “and wait till 3:30,” she said. A family from Tennessee was in the store, preschool daughter Ryelynn Scissom holding a sign proclaiming herself a “Kimbrel Fan.”

Brown was on her way from her home in Montgomery and headed to Nashville anyway, so it was a convenient stopover. She was the first person to collect autographs as, from right to left, Braves rookie catcher Christian Bethancourt, pitching prospect Gus Schlosser, Kimbrel and pitching prospect Aaron Northcraft, signed at a long table near the store’s entrance.

Brown describes herself as “a baseball fan in general” more than merely a Braves fan.

Kimbrel makes another caravan stop in Georgia on Monday, then he’s basically back on the clock. He reports to Atlanta for “Camp Roger” – that’s the preseason “voluntary” mini-camp for pitchers under coach Roger McDowell – then it’s on to Orlando for spring training.

The 25-year-old, who played high school ball for Butch Weaver at Lee, then pitched for Wallace State-Hanceville, has led the National League in saves each of his three seasons and been chosen for the All-Star Game each year. He has a career 1.39 ERAin 231 relief appearances, with 139 saves and 381 strikeouts in 227 innings. As the closer, called upon in the ninth inning to hold a lead, there is enormous pressure.

“I pitch when I’m supposed to,” he shrugged. “If I don’t do my job, it was my fault. If I do my job, we’re supposed to win. That’s the aspect of that job.”

It has been a relatively low-key winter, Kimbrel said.

“I try to tiptoe around here in the off-season,” he laughed. He’s “killed a few deer, went to a bunch of weddings, worked out and played catch. Pretty boring. A lot of time on the bike.”

As he heads to spring training, there is an enormous difference from a year ago. He was invited to pitch for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic last March, meaning an abbreviated time in camp.

“I’m going in not as prepared,” Kimbrel said. “Spring training will be a little more laid back. I had to be ready to go (last spring). I’ll have more time. I can work on my golf game a little more.”