As they were preparing to introduce Craig Kimbrel to his first Major League Spring Training in 2010, members of the Braves organization were referring to him as “the right-handed Billy Wagner.”
It was a convenient comparison, given that Atlanta had just signed Wagner to serve as its closer. Those who had already seen Kimbrel understood that he possessed the same kind of high-powered fastball and sharp curveball that Wagner displayed on his way to becoming one of the game’s finest closers.
But the accuracy of the comparison was not fully realized until this year, when Kimbrel assumed the closer role and proved, like Wagner, that he’s both fearless and capable of overcoming the inevitable adversity that accompanies the role.
“He’s got the mentality to be the closer,” third baseman Chipper Jones said. “Obviously, we know about his stuff. But you’ve got to have some of that ‘I’m coming at you with my best stuff’ kind of mentality. Having played with Wags, I knew he was like that. He was like, ‘Here it is. If you can hit it, good for you.’ Kimbrel is kind of the same way.”
|1. Neftali Feliz, Rangers||2010||40|
|2. Kazuhiro Sasaki, Mariners||2000||37|
|3. Craig Kimbrel, Braves||2011||36|
|3. Todd Worrell, Cardinals||1986||36|
|5. Jonathan Papelbon, Red Sox||2006||35|
When Wagner retired at the end of the 2010 season, the Braves were left with two young potential closers — Kimbrel and Jonny Venters. Both have pitched well enough this season to have been members of the National League squad at this year’s All-Star Game.
As Venters has once again successfully handled the setup duties he was introduced to last year, Kimbrel has been better than the Braves could have envisioned while handling the closer role throughout his first full season.
Kimbrel began the week with a Major League-leading 36 saves, leaving him four shy of the all-time rookie record the Rangers’ Neftali Feliz set last year. His dominance has allowed some Braves fans to express less concern about losing Feliz in the prospect-loaded package that brought Mark Teixeira to Atlanta in 2007.
“I knew if we had a good year, I would have a lot of chances,” Kimbrel said. “But to say I would have been close to 40 at this time, I would have said, ‘No way.’ It’s been fun.”
Since being selected in the third round of the 2008 First-Year Player Draft, Kimbrel has impressed with his physical skills and ability to quickly make necessary adjustments.
When he made his Major League debut in May 2010, Kimbrel was still battling some of the control issues that plagued him in his earliest Minor League days, and he was also showing a weakness in regard to keeping potential basestealers honest.
By the time Kimbrel returned to the Majors for good in September, he was throwing strikes more consistently and showing that he had learned how to better defend against the running game.
In the 12 appearances he made during the season’s final month, he allowed four hits, issued five walks and recorded 23 strikeouts over 11 1/3 scoreless innings.
Through his first 60 appearances and 58 2/3 innings this year, Kimbrel converted 36 of 41 save opportunities and posted a 1.84 ERA while limiting opponents to a .172 batting average. His 92 strikeouts were 13 more than any other Major League reliever at the start of play on Monday.
When Kimbrel blew five of his first 23 save opportunities and issued 15 walks in his first 31 innings, some Braves fans were wondering if Venters should be handling the closing duties.
That wonder appears to no longer exist. Over his past 27 appearances, Kimbrel has worked 26 2/3 scoreless innings and converted each of his 18 save opportunities. In the process, he has issued just eight walks and limited opponents to a .093 batting average.
“If he stays healthy, I think he has the potential to be one of the best [closers] ever,” veteran pitcher Tim Hudson said. “He throws 100 mph and he’s got an 88-mph breaking ball that breaks like a 78-mph slider. It’s a big break, but it’s hard. The potential is there for him to be great, not just really good. He’s the best [closer] I’ve played with.”
Kimbrel has been overpowering since coming on the Major League scene last year. His 14.11 strikeouts-per-nine-innings ratio ranks second this year among relievers, trailing only the Dodgers’ Kenley Jansen, who has thrown 21 2/3 fewer innings.
Through the first 81 appearances of his career, Kimbrel has posted 15 strikeouts per nine innings. The best career mark among all qualified relievers in Major League history is 12.66, posted by the Cubs’ Carlos Marmol.
“It’s a nice luxury to have when you can have swings and misses at the end of a game,” Jones said. “It takes a lot of pressure off defenses. Just like the hardest three outs for a pitcher to get are the last three, there is a lot more pressure on the defense to get those last three, too.
“When you’ve got a guy who is out there and can overpower you, you’re going to play better defense in the ninth, because you’re going to have fewer opportunities.”