In the last three seasons, Craig Kimbrel has redefined the notion of pitching dominance, striking out hitters at rates never seen before. Along the way, he has collected saves with an efficiency similar to that of Braves legend John Smoltz. This past weekend, Kimbrel equaled Smoltzie’s career total of 154 saves, a franchise record.
The 5’11” flamethrower is in position to surpass the record any day now, so it’s an appropriate time to recap his career highlights thus far, and to speculate on what the future may hold for the young pitcher.
The Braves sign Kimbrel in 2007 Originally drafted by the Braves in the 33rd round of the 2006 MLB draft, Kimbrel decided to delay the start of his professional baseball career in favor of spending one more year at Wallace State Community college, hoping to improve his draft stock. His plan worked and the Braves drafted him again, this time in the third round as the 96th overall pick.
Kimbreling makes its debut In 2010, Kimbrel developed the odd stance he takes on the mound. According to an interview with talkingchop.com, his habit of dangling his arm awkwardly at his side developed because he grew uncomfortable taking his signs with his arm behind him. Now, the stance is one of the most recognizable in the league. On September 19 of that year, Kimbrel employed his weirdly intimidating oddity against the Mets, striking out the side to earn his first major league save.
National League Rookie of the Year At the age of 23, Kimbrel led the National League in saves as a rookie, with 46, smashing the previous rookie record held by Neftali Feliz by six saves. Kimbrel was unanimously named the National League Rookie of the Year, becoming the first player to garner every first-place vote since Albert Pujols in 2001.
Kimbrel strikes out hitters more often than he doesn’t In just his second season, Kimbrel seemed to have complete control over his explosive fastball and devastating curve. He struck out 116 batters—more than half the batters he faced—in just 62 2/3 innings, becoming the first pitcher to do so after throwing a minimum of 50 innings. Kimbrel was also an All-Star for the second consecutive year while again leading the league in saves with 42.
Kimbrel represents Team USA Following his dominant second season, Kimbrel was selected to be the closer for the American squad in the 2013 World Baseball Classic. Hitters were still not able to figure him out as he continued his success on the mound in 2013. He represented the Braves in the All-Star game for the third time in as many seasons and once again led the league in saves. He was named the MLB Delivery Man of the Year as the best relief pitcher.
Atlanta locks up Kimbrel until 2017 In February, the Braves signed Kimbrel to a record-setting contract, giving him $42 million over four years—the largest amount offered to a non-free agent relief pitcher ever. On April 25, Kimbrel became the fastest to record 400 strikeouts, needing only 236 innings to reach the milestone. Then, on May 18, ten days before his 26th birthday, he became the youngest pitcher to reach 150 saves. (Mariano Rivera did not reach that milestone until he was nearly 30 years old, to put Kimbrel’s achievement into perspective.)
And beyond… Over three full seasons, Kimbrel has averaged 46.3 saves. Baseball’s career saves leader, Mariano Rivera, averaged 40.1 saves over 16 full seasons for the Yankees. If Kimbrel can stay healthy, the Braves may very well have the best closer of the next generation, if not of all time.