Someone noted that, in the ninth inning of the Braves’ hairbreadth victory over Arizona last Sunday, Craig Kimbrel had hit 100 mph on the Turner Field radar gun. Said Kimbrel, all but snorting: “You mean the pitch that I don’t know how Mac caught?”
Well, yes. The intent was to throw a high hard one and make Chris Young chase it. Kimbrel threw it so hard and high that Brian McCann had to spring from his crouch to keep it from clattering against the backstop, which would have been a revolting development seeing as how the tying run occupied third base. But enough play by play.
The greater points here: Craig Kimbrel isn’t overly impressed with how hard he throws, which is a key consideration for somehow who throws as hard as he throws. He has clambered past the point where velocity is the be-all/end-all and has ascended to a more mature plane. More than just a thrower, he’s becoming a pitcher. More than just a pitcher, he’s becoming the absolute best at what he does.
Kimbrel tied the record held by Texas’ Neftali Feliz — given that the latter was once a Braves prospect himself, imagine those two in the same bullpen — for saves by a rookie. Kimbrel’s 40th save came in the Braves’ 130th game, which he’s in position to obliterate the benchmark. Forget 40 saves. He might get 50 before he’s done.
The Braves’ record for saves in a season is 55, set by John Smoltz in 2002. (Fifty-five also remains the National League standard, matched by Eric Gagne in 2003.) Smoltz was 35 and long since established as an elite pitcher when he hit 55. Kimbrel is 23, two years removed from Class A.
We recall Kimbrel being lights-out (to borrow Brad Lidge’s handle) as a set-up man down the stretch last season, but there was no way to know how he’d react to being named the closer at such a tender age. Closing games is more an issue of temperament than stuff. Trevor Hoffman became dominant on the strength of his change-up. Mariano Rivera became the best ever on the strength of one pitch, the legendary cut fastball.
We knew Kimbrel could throw really hard. What we didn’t know was whether his big heat could be harnessed. In 2009 he walked 45 batters in 60 minor-league innings, a ratio unacceptable in a big-league closer. Last year he walked 51 in 76 1/3 minor-and-major innings — still too high.
After a February workout at Turner Field, Kimbrel said: “From right now until the season, [working on control] becomes my focus. I want to improve it.”
Done. In 2011, Kimbrel has walked 25 in 63 2/3 innings. His WHIP (walks-and-hits-per-innings-pitched) is 1.01, which is fabulous. (Roy Halladay’s WHIP is 1.05; Rivera’s is 0.92.) And Kimbrel is, best of all, still striking guys out.
Kimbrel leads relievers in strikeouts, averaging 1.6 an inning. And here again we’re thinking: Got to be the heat, huh? Not entirely. According to ESPN’s Inside Edge, Kimbrel throws his slider about one-fourth of the time, and it’s darned effective. Opposing batters are hitting .113 against his breaking pitch, .192 against his fastball. Either way, they aren’t hitting much.
He had five blown saves in his first 23 chances. He has had none since, the last coming June 7. He has become what only the best closers become — all but automatic. (This isn’t to say he’ll never blow another save. Even the greats are human. Rivera blew Game 7 of a World Series.) And watching Kimbrel at work, peering plateward from that hermit-crab stance and then loosing his lightning, has become a treat in a season that has yielded several.
I’ve been here since 1984. I’ve seen some pretty stellar rookies, Gant and Justice and the Joneses and Furcal and Francoeur and Heyward and Freeman and all those Young Gun starting pitchers. Craig Kimbrel is the most impressive Braves rookie these eyes have yet beheld.
By Mark Bradley