In spite of blowing the save in games 162 and losing his wallet the same night, Craig Kimbrel had a record breaking rookie year.
Kimbrel appeared on the Braves horizon early in 2010 pitching 8.1 innings in eight May and June games. There were hints in those performances that he was something special as he struck out 15 of the 41 batters faced and had an ERA of 1.08. He would likely have stuck around if not for the 10 walks and the resultant 1.680 WHIP. Instead he returned to Gwinnett to work things out returning at the end of August. He used his time at Gwinnett well.
In 13 games during August, September and October he pitched 12 1/3 innings and faced 47 batters who managed to produce only five hits and six walks against him without scoring. One other little thing, he struck out 25 had a 0.00 ERA and his WHIP dropped to 0.916. He picked up one hold and his first major league save (August 19 against the Mets) and he got to spend a lot of time with future Hall of Fame Closer Billy Wagner.
Kimbrel has always been a closer. It’s something we’re starting to see more of these days but he really is in the forefront of the evolution. Spending time with a winning veteran like Wagner was invaluable for both Kimbrel and fellow late innings man Jonny Venters. When Kimbrel came to camp in 2011 he was – in spite of all media reports – closer designate.
He started 2011 with a save in the first three games, earned number four in game six and blew his first save the next day. On June 8th, game 53 for the year, he blew save number five making his record 2-2 with 18 saves and 5 blown saves. Inside those innings however he was making everyone sit up and take notice. His line looked liked this.
While his walk rate had crept back up his consistent strike outs of very good hitters was drawing national attention. He was selected for the National League All Star Team by manager Bruce Bochy who had seen enough of him to know he didn’t like facing him trailing by a run in the 9th. Bochy however used Kimbrel early in the game and his closer Brian Wilson in the 9th. Kimbrel relieved teammate Jair Jurrjens in the seventh with two out and issued a walk before getting Howie Kendrick to ground out.
While no one was watching Kimbrel had embarked on one of those streaks the media like to hype but that smart pitchers like Greg Maddux would tell you mean little as long as you get the job done. While Atlanta press were mentioning it early on trying to assure Kimbrel made the All Star Team it took his selection and appearance to focus national attention on it.
After allowing a run in the 10th inning of a Braves win on June 11, he retired the next hitter and didn’t allow another run until the ninth inning on 9 September with two out. During that three month period he threw 37 2/3 innings in 38 games. He allowed only 14 hits (only one extra base hit, a double), 11 walks, hitting one batter and striking out 67. That is of course an ERA of 0.00 and a WHIP of 0690. His strikeout rate was 16 per nine innings and a strikeout to walk ratio of 6.09. During the run he was 2-0 with 25 saves and fell just short of the scoreless innings record for relievers. Looking at it another way that’s:
During that run he notched his 41st save giving him the MLB rookie saves record and had to break in new shoes with the Hall of Fame ask for his spikes.
The heartbreaking 162nd game of the year was Kimbrel’s 100th career appearance and his 79th for the year. He finished with some pretty imposing numbers and in some pretty impressive company. Here they are along with his rank among closers with at least 35 games finished in the NL.
Tied for the league saves lead with John Axford – Milwaukee Brewers
There is a major league closer with a higher WAR than Kimbrel and more than 35 games finished this year; Mariano Rivera.
Without the scoreless innings streak, the lead in so many categories and the saves record this would be a marvelous beginning to a career and his buddy Freddie Freeman would be an award winner. With them Craig Kimbrel will undoubtedly be the NL Rookie of the Year.
Next time I’ll look at the NL’s best bullpen. If you have any questions about the 2011 season and how specific players did let me know and I’ll try to get it into a post. I’m available on Twitter – @fredeowens – email [email protected]