If baseball’s awards voting goes as expected this fall, Braves reliever Craig Kimbrel will be named the National League’s rookie of the year. But Kimbrel isn’t just having a good season for a rookie—he’s having one of the best years anyone has ever had out of the bullpen.
Pitchers have traditionally been measured by earned-run average, but the rise of advanced statistics has given us fairer tools with which to judge their performance. The problem with ERA is it’s affected by a team’s defensive skills. By using a statistic called fielding-independent pitching (FIP), we can isolate just those areas that are under a pitcher’s control.
Heading into Tuesday’s games, Kimbrel had a 1.17 FIP this season, which if it holds up would be the second-best mark posted by a reliever in a full season over the last 50 years. Only Eric Gagne’s 2003 season with the Dodgers (0.86) grades out better.
A (Relief) Season for the Ages
The top relief seasons of the past 50 years, ranked by fielding-independent pitching (FIP).
|Eric Gagne Dodgers||2003||1.20||0.86|
|Craig Kimbrel Braves||2011||1.76||1.17|
|Dennis Eckersley A’s||1990||0.61||1.34|
|Rob Dibble Reds||1990||1.74||1.50|
|Dave Smith Astros||1987||1.65||1.54|
|Rob Dibble Reds||1991||3.17||1.54|
|John Smoltz Braves||2003||1.12||1.54|
Kimbrel’s dominance is best displayed by his strikeout rate. His 14.8 strikeouts per nine innings this season is the fifth-best mark in baseball history for a reliever. At the same time, he’s also allowed one home run all season.
So perhaps this might finally be the year that the Braves do something in the playoffs. (Atlanta has lost in the Division Series in its last five postseason trips.) With the Braves on track to earn the NL’s wild-card berth—they held a 4-1/2-game lead over the Cardinals entering Tuesday—Atlanta’s playoff opponents will need to grab a lead early, lest they have to overcome Kimbrel and teammate Jonny Venters (2.48 FIP) in the late innings.