No. 22: Craig Kimbrel
Braves Seasons: 2010-2014
Right-handed Relief Pitcher
15-10; ERA 1.43, WHIP 0.903, 186 SV, 289 IP
It is difficult to overstate how good this guy was. He blew away Smoltz’s club record for saves in 3 ½ seasons, leading the league in saves each year. In 2012, he had 42 saves with an ERA of 1.01 and a WHIP of 0.654 with 16.7 K/9, 116 Ks, and 14 walks. His FIP was 0.78 that year. For comparison, the single season FIP record (only starters qualify due to IP requirements) is Christy Mathewson in 1908 with a 1.287. (With that year, Kimbrel finished fifth in the Cy Young, which is simply risible. R.A. Dickey won.)
Kimbrel’s career ERA of 1.63 is the lowest in the history of baseball for pitchers with at least 300 IP.
Out of Huntsville, AL, Craig was a third round draft pick from Wallace State CC in 2008. If you don’t remember his minor league years, that’s because he didn’t have many. He made his MLB debut less than two years later at the age of 21 on May 7, 2010. Rookie of the Year in 2011. TSN NL Pitcher of the Year in 2013 and 2014.
Mariano Rivera? Don’t want to hear about it. For the four years he was a Brave, no one was better in all of baseball than Kimbrel. I can’t find a four year stretch in Rivera’s career anywhere that is as good as CK’s four years in Atlanta (although his 2008-11 is close). The only reliever I can recall from memory that was as utterly dominant for 2-3 seasons was Billy Wagner in his Houston days. For his short Braves career, Kimbrel was better than Sutter, Lee Smith, Eckersley, Hoffman. His ERA+ as a Brave was 266. Among the few closers who make the minimum 1000 IP, Rivera leads that stat with 205 (he’s the career leader for all pitchers), Quisenberry 146, Hoffman 141, Franco 138, Sutter 136, Lee Smith 132. God, I hated to see him go.
Obviously, Rivera and those other relievers were very, very good for a much longer period of time. Kimbrel’s numbers in San Diego fell significantly off his ridiculous career marks, but he seemed to find his stride in the second half. Where does he wind up? He’s already 39th in career saves with peripherals that stand up against anybody. The Hall of Fame has not been generous with closers. Of true closers, only Eckersley, Fingers, Gossage and Sutter have made it in, but voters’ resistance to the role seems to be weakening. Rivera is a lock and Trevor Hoffman should eventually make it. We’ll have to see if Kimbrel can avoid injury, Wohler’s Disease, or getting hit by a train. But if he does, he’ll be a real candidate.
I had some difficulty ranking him. It’s hard to balance his phenomenal impact with his very short Braves career. Sure he’s got more saves than Garber. But Garber pitched a lot longer for the Braves in a time when the role of Closer™ was not quite as strictly defined. I finally settled on No. 22, below McGriff (sliding to 21 in the new list) and above Ralph Garr. That feels right, but if you want to rank him 3 slots higher or 3 lower, you could easily defend that position. If you want to go on peak value, he’s in the top ten easy.