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Craig Kimbrel Stats: 400 Saves and a Case for Cooperstown

When Craig Kimbrel retired Ronald Acuña Jr. to end Friday’s game in Atlanta, he became the fastest pitcher to reach 400 career saves. The 35-year-old joins Kenley Jansen as the second player to reach the milestone this season. When looking at some Craig Kimbrel stats, there’s a compelling argument for him to make it into the Hall of Fame. However, have his struggles over recent years been enough to keep him out?

Craig Kimbrel Stats: The Hall of Fame Case

An Absolutely Dominant Peak

Kimbrel was drafted by the Braves in the third round of the 2008 MLB Draft out of Wallace State Community College. Just under two years later, he made his major league debut after dominating MiLB competition at three different levels.

With another fireballer, Billy Wagner, serving as the Atlanta closer, Kimbrel didn’t get many save opportunities, but he still impressed by only allowing one earned run in 20 2/3 innings. He recorded his first career save on September 19 against the Mets, striking out three in a scoreless ninth inning.

Kimbrel struggled a bit with his control, walking 16 batters, but he also racked up 40 strikeouts. He was solid in the postseason too, allowing just one earned run and one hit in 4 1/3 innings, though the Braves were eliminated in the five games by the Giants in the NLDS. With Wagner set to retire at the season’s end, Kimbrel seemed ready to assume the closer’s role for the 2011 season.

Kimbrel’s first full season began a remarkable seven-year stretch, including an especially dominant four-season stretch in which he led his league in saves. He won NL Rookie of the Year in 2011, locking down 46 saves with a 2.10 ERA/1.52 FIP and a whopping 127 strikeouts in 77 innings (14.8 K/9). Kimbrel also cut his walk rate down significantly from 18.2% to 10.5%. In addition to winning Rookie of the Year, Kimbrel made his first All-Star Game, finished ninth in Cy Young voting, and received an MVP vote.

Kimbrel’s 2012 season, however, was one of the best that any reliever has ever had. He went 42-for-45 in save opportunities, recording a minuscule 1.01 ERA/0.78 FIP and a 0.654 WHIP in 62 2/3 innings. Of the 231 batters he faced, Kimbrel fanned 116 of them, giving him a whopping 50.1% strikeout rate.

Kimbrel only allowed three homers, and walked just 14 batters, giving him a sterling 8.29 strikeout-to-walk ratio. His opponents managed a measly .358 OPS against him. As a result, Kimbrel made his second straight All-Star Game, won the NL Rolaids Relief Man Award, finished fifth in the Cy Young voting, and eighth in MVP voting.

Kimbrel had another spectacular season in 2013, racking up a career-high 50 saves in 54 opportunities. He had a sparkling 1.21 ERA/1.93 FIP and recorded 98 strikeouts against 20 walks in 67 innings (13.2 K/9). For the third year in a row, Kimbrel made the All-Star Game, finished top 10 in Cy Young voting (fourth place), received MVP votes (11th place), and for the second straight year, he was named the NL’s best reliever.

In 2014, Kimbrel registered 47 more saves, and while his walk rate increased to 10.7%, he recorded 95 strikeouts and 1.61 ERA/1.83 FIP in 61 2/3 innings (13.8 K/9). He made his fourth straight All-Star Game, got ninth in Cy Young voting, and won the Trevor Hoffman Reliever of the Year award.

All told, during this other-worldly stretch from 2011-2014, Kimbrel recorded 185 saves with a 1.51 ERA/1.52 FIP and a 0.880 WHIP while striking out 42% of the batters he faced over 268 1/3 innings. Furthermore, opponents managed just a .448 OPS against him.

Kimbrel dominated by largely using just two pitches: a fastball that averaged just over 97 miles per hour and a wipeout curveball in the high 80s. His curveball was arguably the best pitch in the sport. During this four-year period, Kimbrel threw his curveball 1,285 times and allowed just two extra-base hits (one homer and one double), and registered a whiff rate of over 53%.

Craig Kimbrel Stats: The San Diego and Boston Years

With the Braves a sinking ship after a disappointing 79-83 2014 season, Kimbrel was traded to the Padres on Opening Day in 2015. His first two months in San Diego were rocky, owning a 5.19 ERA in the month of April and only lowering that mark to 4.74 by the end of May.

Due to his pedestrian first half, Kimbrel missed the All-Star Game for the first time since his debut season in 2010. In the second half though, he looked like his old self, pitching to a 1.74 ERA with 39 strikeouts and 16 saves in 26 innings. He finished the year with 39 saves and a 2.58 ERA/2.68 FIP with 87 strikeouts in 59 1/3 innings (13.2 K/9). Despite this being a “down” year, his fastball velocity reached new heights, averaging a career-high 98 MPH.

The Padres went into a full rebuild after a disappointing 2015 season and shipped Kimbrel to the Red Sox ahead of the 2016 season. Kimbrel made it back to the All-Star Game but suffered a torn meniscus in July. His ERA ballooned to a career-worst 3.40 and his walk rate skyrocketed to 13.6%, though his strikeout rate increased too. Just when it looked Kimbrel’s decline may have arrived, he bounced back with a season that rivaled what he did in Atlanta.

In 2017, Kimbrel turned in a sterling 1.43 ERA/1.42 FIP in 69 innings, his best mark since the Braves traded him. He went 35-for-39 in save opportunities and struck out 126 of the 254 batters he faced, giving him a 49.6% strikeout rate. Furthermore, Kimbrel walked just 14 batters, which led to a career-best 9.00 strikeout-to-walk ratio. While his curveball was still fantastic, his four-seam fastball registered a whopping negative-23 run value, one of the best marks in baseball. The right-hander made his sixth All-Star Game, finished sixth in Cy Young voting, and won the Mariano Rivera Reliever of the Year award.

2018 was an up-and-down year by Kimbrel’s standards. He joined the 300-save club in May of that year and recorded 42 saves, the most he had since his days in Atlanta. However, he gave up a career-worst seven homers, and his walk rate more than doubled, reaching 12.6%. His fastball velocity dipped from 98.3 MPH to 97.1, and he struggled in the postseason, giving up seven earned runs in 10 2/3 innings. Still, Kimbrel was an All-Star for the seventh time and seemed poised for a big contract as he entered free agency.

Volatility and An Unforgiving Decline

Kimbrel declined the qualifying offer the Red Sox tendered him, and due to the compensation of a draft pick tied to him, no team signed him during the 2018-19 offseason. He finally signed with a team in June, inking a three-year contract with the Cubs.

He made his season debut under three weeks later, recording his first save as a Cub against the Braves on June 27. However, his season spiraled shortly thereafter. He surrendered five runs over his next two appearances, and his ERA wouldn’t dip below 4.00 again that season. Opponents owned a 1.019 OPS against him and he surrendered a career-worst nine homers in just 20 2/3 innings. His fastball velocity fell to a career-low 96.2 MPH his 6.53 ERA/8.00 FIP were far and away the worst marks he’d ever seen. His numbers didn’t get much better in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, as he allowed nine runs in 15 1/3 innings, issuing an alarming 12 walks to boot.

Kimbrel finally had a normal spring training in 2021, and he looked like his old self again. He made it back to the All-Star Game for the first time since 2018 and allowed just two earned runs in 36 1/3 innings. His strikeout rate rose to 46.7%, while his walk rate fell to 9.5%.

The Cubs, however, hit a bad slump that summer and dealt him across town to the White Sox before the trade deadline. Serving primarily as a setup man for Liam Hendriks, Kimbrel struggled down the stretch, posting just a 5.09 ERA and giving up five homers in 23 innings on the South Side. With a hefty salary for 2022, the White Sox sent Kimbrel to the Dodgers ahead of the following season.

In his lone season in Los Angeles, Kimbrel’s numbers declined again. Most concerningly, his fastball velocity averaged below 96 MPH for the first time in his career, and his strikeout rate tumbled to a career-low 27.7%. His walk rate went up 10.8%, and he eventually lost the closer’s role that summer. After putting up 22 saves with an underwhelming 3.75 ERA in 60 innings, he became a free agent again, this time signing a one-year contract with the Phillies.

In his Phillies tenure so far, Kimbrel has endured his fair share of rocky outings, as indicated by his 5.85 ERA. However, he has only allowed two earned runs over his last eight appearances, racking up 15 strikeouts in that time. He has converted all seven of his save opportunities, and his strikeout rate is back up to 38.6%. While his walk rate is up and his fastball velocity has dipped slightly again, there are reasons to believe the eight-time All-Star can salvage this season.

Craig Kimbrel Stats Compared to Hall of Famers

There are only eight relief pitchers that are currently enshrined in Cooperstown. Kimbrel currently ranks eighth all-time in saves (one behind Jansen), and of the seven players ahead of him, only Lee Smith (478), Trevor Hoffman (601), and Mariano Rivera (652) are in the Hall of Fame. Francisco Rodríguez (437) is still on the ballot, and Billy Wagner (422) has received a large increase in support in recent years as he enters his ninth year of voting. John Franco (424) fell off the ballot after his first year of eligibility.

Kimbrel trails seven of the eight Hall of Famers in strikeouts, but despite having far fewer innings pitched, he’s not too far behind them. He’s just three strikeouts behind Hoffman, 43 behind Rivera, 121 behind Smith, and 169 behind Fingers. Kimbrel seems unlikely to pass Goose Gossage, Hoyt Wilhelm, and Dennis Eckersley, due to their very high volume of innings. Kimbrel’s 14.4 K/9 and 39.9% strikeout rate are significantly higher than all eight of the Hall of Famers.

In terms of run prevention, even with his decline, Kimbrel trails just Rivera in ERA. In keeping runners off the bases, Kimbrel’s 0.994 WHIP and 5.2 hits-per-nine are lower than all eight of them. Furthermore, Kimbrel has held his opponents to just a .535 OPS, which is also lower than that of all eight Hall of Famers. Comparing save totals, Kimbrel seems likely to pass both Wagner and Franco on the all-time list by the end of the year and has an outside shot of passing Rodríguez. Depending on how many more years he plays, Kimbrel has a chance to pass Smith as well. Jansen and Kimbrel will likely flip-flop in the rankings throughout the rest of their playing days.

One knock against Kimbrel though is his lack of postseason experience, as he’s only pitched 24 innings in the playoffs. His numbers aren’t super impressive either, with a 4.43 ERA and only seven saves. However, he still has more postseason innings and saves than Hoffman, Smith, Wilhelm, and Bruce Sutter. When looking at accolades, Kimbrel is tied with Wilhelm for the third-most All-Star Game selections with eight.

Craig Kimbrel Stats Verdict: Cooperstown is Calling

While he’s fallen on hard times in recent years, Kimbrel was the most dominant reliever of all time at his peak. He missed bats and accrued saves at a rate that no one has ever rivaled, and even if his numbers continue to decline, he’ll likely finish with better stats than almost every reliever that’s currently in the Hall of Fame. As is the case with his peer Kenley Jansen, it’s hard to find a reason why Kimbrel should be enshrined in Cooperstown when all is said and done.

Main image credit Embed from Getty Images

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