ATLANTA — The closer position is baseball’s revolving door, the ever-spinning merry-go-round of velocity and movement. Here one day, gone the next. A select few buck the trend. Craig Kimbrel is one of them, already an exception to modern-day baseball’s bullpen rule of thumb.
Of the 30 pitchers serving as an MLB team’s primary closer during Kimbrel’s 2011 rookie season, only three led the same team in saves in 2013: Kimbrel, Mariano Rivera (Yankees) and Chris Perez (Indians). Only seven of those players served as a closer on any team last season — a 23 percent longevity rate over the three-season sample.
And with Rivera sailing off into a Hall of Fame sunset and Perez being cut by Cleveland last month, the Braves’ 25-year-old righty will enter the 2014 season as the last big league reliever closing for the same team from 2011 to 2013.
Over that stretch, he’s become the most dominant ninth-inning force in the game, leading all qualified relievers in nearly every relevant category imaginable. He’s one of the few that has not regressed back to the mean. Now, the retirement of the all-time saves king leaves Kimbrel as the heir apparent — at least for the foreseeable future, which, in relation to closers, stretches to Opening Day.
Short-term goals suit the Huntsville, Ala., native just fine, though. Past accomplishments and long-range milestones don’t register nearly as high on his priority list; just this: “What’s next?”
“I understand what I’ve done in years past. I want to be better the next year, the year after that. That’s really the only outlook I have on it,” Kimbrel said in a phone interview on Wednesday. “A lot of my goals in baseball aren’t personal goals. I understand that in my job I have a lot to do with the outcome of games and wins, but I try to go out there every inning, even during spring training, knowing that my goal is throwing the last pitch in the World Series. And when we have a season where that doesn’t happen, obviously I look at the season as, ‘I didn’t go out and do what my goal was.’”
By his own measure, even with a fourth-place finish in the NL Cy Young voting — a lofty endorsement given the one- to two-inning spurts relievers have to affect a game’s trajectory, though there is something to be said about being the very best at one’s craft — Kimbrel fell short of his personal aspirations for the third full season in the majors last season.
One of the lasting images of the Braves’ loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the division series concerned him, too, as he never received the opportunity to close out Game 4 with Atlanta clinging to a 3-2 lead in the eighth inning. Cameras caught a frustrated Kimbrel saying he had wanted to go in. As manager Fredi Gonzalez stated after the season, he always does. He still does. Time won’t changed that.
“Obviously, as a competitor, everybody wants to be out there and have the ball at all times. But that’s not always the best thing for you and your career. You know, I’m competitor, I’m always gonna want the ball no matter what. Even if I can’t do something, well, I’m gonna try,” Kimbrel said. “I wouldn’t say the situation made things more frustrating. I think as whole, our entire team, we set high standards for ourselves. So we were obviously frustrated as a team no matter what the situation was.
“Even if the season would have ended in a different way, we still would have been frustrated.”
To avoid future disappointment, Kimbrel, who is arbitration-eligible this offseason, is once again putting in the work. Though he’s capable of mixing in a variety of pitches more than ever before, he’ll continue to stick with his four-seam fastball and biting curve until further notice. If that classifies him strictly as a two-pitch pitcher, then so be it.
“I was talking with (pitching coach) Roger McDowell, and he says, ‘You don’t need to throw those other pitches you have until you have to.’”
That time has not come yet. In a season which saw him post career-worsts in fielding-independent pitching and strikeout rates, Kimbrel still became just the 11th pitcher ever to hit the 50-save plateau and just the second closer to hit that mark while allowing 40 hits or fewer, joining 2003 Cy Young winner Eric Gagne. His 139 career saves rank as the second-highest total ever recorded before a player’s 26th birthday.
With 16 more saves, he’ll become the franchise’s all-time leader, passing John Smoltz. With 21 more saves, he’ll pass his own coach, McDowell, for 70th place on the MLB’s all-time list. There are milestones both immediate and distant. It’s all out in front of him, granting him the health and good fortune that has alluded a startling majority of his peers.
Those numbers do not reflect flawlessness, though. Kimbrel is quick to point out that he blew four saves last season, “saddling” the Braves four losses in a campaign that saw them miss out on the NL’s No. 1 overall seed by one game. His walk and home run rates increased slightly and (only) four other relievers finished with a higher wins above replacement last season.
If such things don’t matter in the grand scheme of a 162-game schedule, then try not telling that to the new king of the ninth-inning hill.
“I want to go out there and be perfect,” Kimbrel said. “That’s going to be tough, but I’m sure gonna go out there and try to do it. … I’m gonna go out there and try to go 50-for-50 or 55-for-55 or 35-for-35. As many opportunities as I have, I want to close the game in those opportunities.”