Craig Kimbrel is less than loquacious when it comes to discussing himself and what’s made him, at 24, arguably the best closer in baseball.
But Braves teammates will go on at length about the boyish-looking Alabama native with a right arm like Thor’s hammer.
After striking out all three Houston batters he faced in the ninth inning Friday, Kimbrel had an absurd 50 strikeouts and one walk in 28 innings over his past 28 appearances.
“I’d put him up there in the same category with [Eric] Gagne among the guys I’ve caught,” said veteran Braves backup catcher David Ross, who played for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2003 when Gagne won the National League Cy Young Award, converting all 55 of his save opportunities and posting a 1.20 ERA with 137 strikeouts and 20 walks in 82-1/3 innings.
“When Gagne was on that streak [84 consecutive saves converted] it was a joke; he wasn’t on the same playing field as anybody else,” Ross said. “I put Craig in that category, of guys I’ve caught. I was on a team with [Trevor] Hoffman, I was on a team with Wags [Billy Wagner] and with Gagne. Three of the top closers in the game for periods of time. And Craig’s in that category for me.”
After posting a 2.10 ERA with a 4-to-1 strikeouts-to-walks ratio in 2011, when he tied for the NL saves lead (46) and was a unanimous choice for NL Rookie of the Year, Kimbrel has been even better in 2012.
He had a 1.29 ERA with 73 strikeouts and 11 walks in 42 innings before Saturday. He was tied for the league lead with 31 saves (in 33 chances) and had a majors-leading 6.0 runners allowed per nine innings. No other reliever was below 7.0.
“He’s so young that you hate to say ‘finished product],’” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “But he is pretty close.”
After giving up a run apiece in back-to-back appearances May 2 and May 4, Kimbrel allowed eight hits and two runs in his past 31 appearances before Saturday.
“There’s a lot of good pitchers in the game,” Braves pitcher Kris Medlen said, “but if Craig can keep it up there’s no doubt he’s going to be one of the best closers of all time.”
Kimbrel’s .120 opponents’ batting average for the season included a microscopic .055 (4-f0r-73) with 41 strikeouts by left-handed batters. And he’s right-handed.
“Every time I watch him it’s like, it’s not fair,” Braves reliever Jonny Venters said, shaking his head. “He’s locked in.”
Ross added, “I mean, when he comes out there, you really feel like the game’s over. A two-run lead feels like six.”
Wagner pitched for the Braves in 2010, the last year of the left-handed closer’s illustrious career and one of his finest. At 38, he had 37 saves and a 1.37 ERA for the Braves, with 104 strikeouts and 22 walks in 69-1/3 innings.
As good as Wagner was on the field, tips he provided in the bullpen and clubhouse might prove even more valuable for the Braves in the long run. Venters, Eric O’Flaherty, Medlen and others who were part of the 2010 bullpen say Wagner went out of his way to share advice and experiences with other Braves relievers, and particularly with Kimbrel during spring training and when the then-prospect was called up several times from Triple-A.
“As a young guy, any kind of hanging out and talking that you can do with the older players helps,” Medlen said. “Any time you can talk to a guy that’s been here that long [Wagner] or for any time at all, it’s going to help you. It definitely helped Craig. You can see that. He’s the best closer in baseball. Best reliever in baseball.
“[Wagner] volunteered to take him under his wing. He saw the potential. He was right, obviously.”
Venters said, “I think being able to spend time with Billy was huge for him. Because they were kind of getting [Kimbrel] ready for that [closer] role, and to learn from one of the top five that ever did it… And he was so willing to help us and share with us things that he’s learned and things that he did. I think we all benefited a great deal and in different ways.
“When Craig came up his stuff was great, but I don’t think he had as good of an idea as he does now, to what he wants to do. Having Billy down there to tell him, ‘Just go right at hitters. Throw strikes.’ Because both of them have stuff that’s just filthy. If you get ahead of guys you’ve really got a chance to be successful.”