Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Rise of Craig Kimbrel

Every MLB team wants a great closer.  A guy the manager can call on in the 9th inning in a tight game and everyone in the parks knows the game is all but done.  

When the Braves drafted Craig Kimbrel in the 3rd round of the 2008 draft out of Wallace State CC, his initial dominance was such that he quickly moved up in the Braves farm system.   Assigned to Danville after signing, he posted a 0.47 ERA in 12 games and picked up 6 saves.  After a brief stop in Rome with 10 more appearances with a sub 1 ERA and a ton of K's, Craig was already in Myrtle Beach.

The 2009 season saw Kimbrel end in AAA Gwinnett, but not before some trouble with control came up early in the 09 season in Myrtle Beach.  He allowed 28 walks in 26 innings, leading to a career high 5.47 ERA, but straightened things out in time to complete 12 dominant innings in AA Mississippi before his AAA debut.

However, the 2010 season was when Kimbrel went from prospect to legend.  His AAA numbers that year included a 1.62 ERA, 23 saves, and 83 K's in 55 innings.  Kimbrel made his MLB debut on May 7th and although control was an issue at times, he still finished 4-0 with a 0.44 ERA.

Those numbers turned a few heads, but most scouts didn't think he could go through an entire MLB season with similar numbers.  He was on the radar as an up and coming closer, but not many predicted the Rookie of the Year season Craig put together in 2011.  He had ridiculous numbers - 127 K's, 46 saves, 64 games, and was one of the best closers in the game.

So after an All-Star rookie season, most Braves fans hoped he could stay healthy and maybe produce similar numbers the next year.  Little did we know then, his 2011 season was just the beginning.

Craig Kimbrel in 2012 posted one of the best relief pitcher seasons of all-time.  The legendary Dennis Eckersley posted 7-1/1.91/51S/93 K's in his 1992 MVP season.  Eric Gagne in his 2003 Cy Young season put up 2-3/1.20/55S/137 K's.

Kimbrel's 2012 season was right up there with those 2 recent examples.   Craig finished the year 3-1/1.01/42S/117 K's - and he did all this in 62 innings while the other 2 worked 80+ in their seasons.

Also in 2012, Kimbrel worked 17 straight scoreless innings and then finished the season on another 13.1 inning streak.  An incredible year, one that certainly wouldn't be topped by Kimbrel, or anyone else, in the near future.

But then 2013 happened.  After pitching his first 8.2 innings in '13 without giving up a run, it appeared Craig Kimbrel was human after all.  A Dexter Fowler double led to the seasons first blown save and a David Wright home run gave Craig back-to-back blown saves.  Just 4 days later, Devin Mesoraco and Shin-Soo Choo both left the park against the Braves closer and there was now some worry across Braves nation.

But not that much worry.

The only blemish on Kimbrel's last 31 appearances since the blown save in Cincinnati on May 7th is a Texas-Leaguer to right by Donovan Solano that tied the game in the game in Miami on July 4th.

Kimbrel has lowered his ERA from 3.38 to 1.22 in this current stretch and has picked up a save in his last 12 appearances, putting him on a 50 save pace at this point.

His 1.41 career ERA, 124 saves, 353 K's in 204 innings are too large of a sample size to dismiss as a guy the league hasn't "figured out.". Mariano Rivera is without a doubt the greates closer of all time, but Kimbrel's performance from 2011-13 is one that no reliever in MLB history can match.

Every MLB team wants a great closer, that reassurance that if it's close late, there is no worry.  The Atlanta Braves don't just have a great closer - they have an all-timer at the closer position...and he's only 25 years old.

No comments: