Braves’ Kimbrel passes Smoltz with franchise record 155th save
ATLANTA — Randy Putman’s drive from the Wallace State Community College campus to Joe Davis Stadium, a Double-A ballpark in Huntsville, Ala., lasted little more than an hour back in 2005, a 65-mile venture through the northern part of the state. It was a mining expedition, a search for a hidden gem, the lifeblood of a JUCO baseball coach. Putman was scouring a college showcase being held at the multi-purpose venue, looking for players on the fringe, the high schoolers MLB teams were going to ignore come draft day and major college programs were going to bypass.
As the story goes, a rising senior from Huntsville’s Lee High School caught the longtime Wallace State coach’s eye. The radar gun ignored the prospect, as did many of the other coaches in attendance. MLB scouts were nowhere near the scene — after all, the undersized right-hander was nowhere near major-league material.
Putman, nestled somewhere within the 10,000-plus capacity ballpark, continued to watch, thoroughly intrigued. There was something about the undersized pitcher, less physical than psychological. He later offered a scholarship, and with so few offers to choose from after graduation, the right-hander accepted the opportunity.
"I had a lot of people think that it was a mistake when I signed him," Putman said.
So goes the discovery of current Atlanta Braves closer Craig Kimbrel, who passed John Smoltz as the franchise’s all-time saves leader with No. 155 in a 5-2 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks on Friday.
Putman found his gem.
"It was throw five fastballs, three breaking pitches and a couple of changeups and I remember I would jot down the velocity of the pitches," Putman, a member of the NJCAA Coaches Hall of Fame and owner of 900-plus coaching victories, said of the showcase. "But the thing that made Craig different is even though he was 83-84 miles an hour, the thing that made him different was when he would miss his spot, it would upset him. In other words, I thought that he was a perfectionist. He knew where he had to throw it because at the time, because of his velocity not being very good, he had to throw it where he needed to throw it. It bothered him when he did not."
If this doesn’t sound like Craig Kimbrel, All-Star closer and baseball’s preeminent reliever, that’s because much has changed between then and now, not the least of which is his claim to the Braves’ franchise record for career saves. That underwhelming high school prospect certainly doesn’t sound like the player who owns the 14th-highest average fastball velocity since his rookie season in 2011. The nine years separating the showcase and No. 155 were marked by a roller coaster ride of events, if only roller coasters ended their joyrides on a steep uphill climb.
Kimbrel suffered a career-altering injury, participated in a strenuous throwing program, was drafted twice, served as a de facto apprentice under one of the game’s top power arms, all before quickly become one of the surest things in sports.
Now, the 26-year-old is at the height of his powers. Kimbrel is in the midst of yet another dominant campaign, and breaking Smoltz’s franchise saves record, a mark that the Hall of Fame candidate also set in an extremely short period of time, is just the latest highlight on an increasingly impressive career resume.
"It means a lot," Kimbrel said after setting the record with his 16th save of the season and his third career four-out save. "I mean, I gotta thank all the former players and all my teammates in the dugout, if it wasn’t for them I wouldn’t be put in that situation, all those opportunities. … I’m just happy to say this is over with and we can get a lot more wins."
Kimbrel found success from the moment he debuted in May 2010, apprenticing under seven-time All-Star Billy Wagner for one season before taking over the closer’s role full time. Kimbrel never looked back. The Huntsville native became the youngest pitcher to reach the 150-save mark (needing the fourth-fewest opportunities) earlier this season. He holds the third-highest save percentage in MLB history at 90.1 percent (155 of 172), behind two Cy Young winners Smoltz and Eric Gagne. And Kimbrel has done it all in overwhelming fashion: No other pitcher in history has thrown 200 or more innings and struck out 43 percent of batters faced.
"No doubt in my mind that this kid is gonna double (the franchise record). … He’s gonna blow by it," Smoltz said. "He’s gonna get 40 and 45 (saves with regularity). He’s just gonna keep getting better. He has been groomed for this. I learned on the job and had some success along the way, but I had 14 years of experience before I did it."
It’s a small window, but Kimbrel has become more than just a standout in baseball’s revolving door of relievers.
He’s on an all-time pace.
"You don’t recognize because you’re around him day after day, but really when you kinda see little things popping up … you really take a hold of what he’s done," Braves teammate and setup man David Carpenter said. "The save percentage, he’s at over 90 percent success rate. And for guy whose been doing this the amount of time he has, normally guys struggle in the beginning or something like that. He’s stepped in and done an amazing job. It’s kinda hard to replicate something like that."
It’s been a meteoric rise since that college showcase, but not one without its setbacks. The key for Kimbrel? Turn setbacks into strengths.
Eight hundred pounds worth of sheetrock dramatically altered the course of Kimbrel’s baseball career. An overlooked prospect with borderline minor-league stuff entering his freshman year at Wallace State, a broken foot, one he obtained while assisting his father run wires when multiple slabs of sheetrock fell on his left foot, smashing bones and dislocating his big toe, could have dismantled his middling career completely.
Instead, it became a launching pad.
Putman wasn’t about to give up on his "bulldog" prospect, placing Kimbrel on a workout and throwing program designed to help develop the muscles in his lower back, torso and upper body, isolating the top half from the lower half by virtue of him not being able to put weight on his foot. He participated in the high-intensity program practically every day his freshman season. Putman said the power through the legs was already there, but once the throwing program took hold, Kimbrel, who had never utilized baseball-specific training in high school, responded immediately — even before he was capable of throwing off a mound.
Tall tales started circulating around the Wallace State program: "Craig Kimbrel can do this off one knee; Craig Kimbrel can do that off two knees." One day, as the school’s 2006 winter break neared, the Lions’ pitchers were working out at the school’s soccer field when Putman wanted to test Kimbrel’s strengthened arm. Kimbrel kneeled even with a soccer goal at one end of the field and, throwing off two knees, his coach wondered aloud if the freshman could throw it over the other net, some 120 yards away. It didn’t go over the crossbar, but Putman recalls it going into the net —through the air.
"I saw him at the end of the fall that year. He was off two knees over by the third-base line, right behind third base," Putman said. "I told him one day, ‘See if you can throw it over that right-field foul pole.’ He threw it over the right-field fence off two knees. And we have a big field. We have a very big field."
Even if these sound like around-the-campfire folk stories that can pass more readily in a small-school environment, Carpenter is buying. Be it the natural progression of a pitcher or the fortunate byproduct of some freak accident that eventually led Kimbrel to become one of baseball’s hardest throwers —and, subsequently, one of the highest-paid relief pitchers in baseball history — Carpenter, a power arm in his own right, has seen enough as Kimbrel’s catch partner to know that the college legends are not too farfetched.
"You hear a lot of folk stories of guys growing up: ‘Oh, he used to hit the ball 500 feet, 600 feet, throw this,’ guys throwing footballs from goalpost to goalpost. But with him (Kimbrel) you can believe a lot of it," Carpenter said. "I’ve played long toss with him and seen what he can do, it’s something special. You don’t see that every day."
According to Putman, after touching the mid-80s during his senior year at Lee High School (Lee High School coach Butch Weaver contends his former player was already throwing harder), Kimbrel’s fastball hit 92 in his first post-injury bullpen session. The velocity would continue its rise until he was consistently throwing 8-plus mph faster than he was as a prep player. By the time Wallace State played another JUCO program at the University of Alabama during the fall of Kimbrel’s sophomore season, a Boston Red Sox scout was informing Putman that his radar gun was reading 99.
The hidden gem was starting to sparkle.
Kimbrel became a legitimate MLB prospect without standing on two feet — "It’s the biggest jump in improvement I’ve ever seen … when he threw it over the plate, (college hitters) didn’t hit him," Putman said. His draft stock kept rising. After closing games in his first collegiate season, the Braves drafted him in the 33rd round. He did not sign, though, electing to continue on the throwing program, step into a starter’s role and aim for the top five rounds in the ’08 draft. That’s when the Braves took him in the third; he struck out his first major-league batter 23 months later.
"It’s weird how certain guys get here," Carpenter said. "And to be able to overcome a lot of the stereotypes, honestly — you know, you have a shorter guy and they’re not known for performing that way. … His story’s special."
During the 2004 season, as Smoltz approached the 141-save mark, the Braves’ franchise record at the time, Gene Garber pulled him aside.
Garber was working as a special instructor with the Atlanta organization at the time, but he made his name in the relief business. Juxtaposed with Smoltz, who closed games for less than 8 percent of his 3,473 career innings, Garber was a bona fide bullpen expert. And historian. The Pennsylvania native with the quirky windup entered the league in 1969, the same year the save became an official statistic, and over 19 years with four different organizations the sidearmer carved out a career highlighted by ending Pete Rose’s 44-game hit streak in ’78 — much to the chagrin of Rose — and 218 career saves.
Garber knew his way around a record book when he pulled Smoltz aside … especially since the record of mention was his.
"I can’t believe the rate it happened in three years and a month that I was the all-time saves leader in this organization. I never even bothered to ask. When they told me, I couldn’t believe it," said Smoltz, who broke Garber’s Braves record of 141 saves on Aug. 19, 2004. "So I never dreamt at all, at any point, that this would be something. It’s one of the greatest things that I’ve ever had to do. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do."
This isn’t a traditional discussion point on Cy Young-winning starters.
Then again, as with so many standout relievers, hardship led Smoltz to life in the bullpen. That’s the lone career crossroad with Kimbrel and Smoltz: A broken foot and Tommy John surgery, unfortunate events that led to unforeseen bullpen success.
Smoltz missed the 2000 season recovering from elbow surgery and converted to the ninth-inning guy under the presumption that it would help the Braves win their first World Series since 1995. That never materialized, but there were positive byproducts. The irony is that when Smoltz put an incredibly successful starting career on hold for team-centric purposes, he submitted his individual career’s defining trait, one that could help carry him to Cooperstown: He’s the only player in MLB history with at least 200 wins and 150 saves.
"I just was a pitcher that pitched in the ninth inning," said Smoltz, who works as a baseball analyst for FOX Sports, FOX Sports South and the MLB Network. "I know that very few guys in the game have ever done that, but it’s not like there isn’t a handful of guys that could have: Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens, Pedro Martinez. They just never were going to because why would they?"
The similarities between Smoltz and Kimbrel, save for what Putman calls their "bulldog tenacity," end there.
From 2001 to 2004, the four seasons he primarily spent closing games, Smoltz struck out less than 27 percent of the batters he faced. That rate would be a cause for concern for Kimbrel. The former was 37 years old when he broke the record, entering the twilight of his career; the latter is 26 and off to the fastest start of any reliever in history. There are different ways to close a ballgame — as evidenced by Smoltz enjoying a higher save percentage during his trek to 154 despite a higher ERA and less dynamic repertoire — but as bullpen usage has shifted over time, the final frame remains most volatile. Few names fill the closer’s role for long. Even fewer command it.
Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez calls the ninth a "different animal." Both Smoltz and Kimbrel understand the nature of that beast.
"A different animal is getting three outs basically every single time, meaning finishing games is actually more difficult than getting three outs in another spot in the game. I say that anybody who tries to think that — let’s say you’re a sixth-inning guy, you can automatically be a ninth-inning guy? It’s different," Smoltz said. "The intensity’s different. The batters don’t waste an at-bat in the ninth inning. The strike zone changes a little bit. There’s a lot of adrenaline. It’s unique, because we don’t play against time."
A select few have been able to thrive in that scenario night after night. If Smoltz is correct in his prediction and Kimbrel stays healthy and effective enough to double his current total, he wouldn’t have much company. Since 1969, there are only 25 players that have reached the 300-save plateau (Phillies reliever Jonathan Papelbon is poised to become No. 26, as he owns 299 saves). Garber, despite his sporadic career usage, still ranks 39th on the all-time list. Sustainability is not the calling card of MLB bullpens.
The greatest long-term closers in history — Mariano Rivera (652 saves), Trevor Hoffman (601), Lee Smith (478), John Franco (424), Billy Wagner (422), Dennis Eckersley (390), etc. — were 15-plus season guys. That’s a steep hill to climb, health-wise. But if Kimbrel’s arm stays in good condition, he has an opportunity to join that distinguished list, especially if he keeps improving.
"I still maintain that in his growth, and as he learns, he’ll limit his pitches and get more saves," Smoltz said. "Once he starts commanding his fastball, they really don’t have a chance. That’s where he’s young enough to where he’s just going to keep getting better."
Fastball. Fastball. Curve. Fastball. Fastball.
Fastball. Fastball. Fastball. Curve. Fastball.
Fastball. Fastball. Fastball.
That was the pitch sequence for Kimbrel in his record-breaking performance on Friday night, fittingly striking out Arizona’s Martin Prado with the tying run in scoring position in the eighth inning. Four consecutive outs. Zero hiccups. Kimbrel has now recorded 419 strikeouts against 973 career batters faced. For this Braves organization, it’s the ninth-inning gift that keeps on giving.
Gonzalez recently noted that having Kimbrel waiting in the bullpen changes the entire complexion of how he manages a game, almost as if the game is played in reverse. It’s an observation that Gonzalez is qualified to make — he didn’t have that luxury in his three-plus seasons managing the Marlins — and one so few of his peers will experience.
Since making his debut in 2010, Kimbrel has been, without question, the marquee reliever in baseball. He’s posted three of the top 20 individual seasons for a reliever over that span — his 2010 campaign may well have made the cut if he had pitched more than 20 2/3 innings; he owned a 0.44 ERA and 40 strikeouts at season’s end — leading all qualified MLB bullpen arms in saves, ERA, fielding-independent pitching (FIP) and strikeout percentage.
In terms of value, nobody comes close: Since his MLB debut, his 10.3 career wins above replacement (WAR) outpaces all other relievers by a large margin, beating out Kansas City’s Greg Holland (8.4), Boston’s Koji Uehara (7.9) and Philadelphia’s Papelbon (7.3). Kimbrel ranks fifth in WAR among relief pitchers this season despite pitching 21 2/3 innings, boasting the typically bloated K rate and a sub-2.00 ERA. If there’s any slowing down, it’s passed undetected.
Aside from his decreased workload due to opportunity and shoulder issues, only his historic 2012 campaign bests his present one.
"When he gets done in his career, it’s gonna be a tough one for anybody to reach here in the Atlanta Braves organization," Gonzalez said of the new record. " … Maybe he gets an opportunity to pitch into his late 30s, early 40s and maybe catch (Rivera and Hoffman)."
Kimbrel isn’t one to divulge his long-range goals — even in the aftermath of historic single-season numbers, he maintains his inning-to-inning, or batter-to-batter, approach. But his long road to the Braves’ franchise saves record should hint at a certain level of motivation. A couple years ago, when visiting Turner Field to watch Wallace State’s crown jewel, Putman thought to offer up some perspective. He told Kimbrel that, at this rate, he could become the most decorated reliever ever, surpassing even Rivera.
Kimbrel’s response was abbreviated, but Putman remembers the look on Kimbrel’s face. Putman’s former player was smiling, at least humoring the thought.
"I’d like that."