Think back to September 22, 2013. It is a cold, windy day in Chicago. The Cubs, hoping to play the role of spoiler, have put two men on base in the bottom of the ninth inning with one out. Atlanta has already clinched its first NL East title since 2005, thanks to a loss by the Washington Nationals. The Braves closer, one of the most feared pitchers in baseball, is hunched over in an awkward stance, preparing to get his sign.
Those two baserunners are as close as Chicago got to a rally on this day. Craig Kimbrel would struck out the side, including two clutch punchouts following consecutive singles by the Cubs. Kimbrel went on to tie Jim Johnson for the league lead in saves with 50 that season, and appeared poised to anchor Atlanta’s bullpen for many pennant winners. Unfortunately, a brutal 2014 season led to Kimbrel being traded away to the San Diego Padres. The trade shook Kimbrel, as he posted consecutive un-Kimbrel like seasons. Fortunately for Boston Red Sox fans, he appears to be back to his dominant self.
Craig Kimbrel is Back
Debut in Atlanta
Kimbrel made his debut in Atlanta in 2010. He appeared in 21 games, mostly as a setup man for veteran closer Billy Wagner. In fact, Wagner’s tutelage is often pointed out as part of the groundwork laid for Kimbrel’s success. Whatever was shared between the two in their lone season together, Kimbrel has definitely put that knowledge to good use.
Success in Atlanta
Starting in 2011, Kimbrel posted four straight seasons of 42+ saves, 95+ strikeouts, and 61+ innings. He won the 2011 NL Rookie of the Year award, finished in the top 10 in Cy Young voting four times, and finished in the top 15 for the MVP award twice.
Kimbrel’s time in Atlanta will go down as one of the most dominant stretches in baseball history. From 2010-2014, Kimbrel posted a record of 15-10, 186 saves, 289.0 innings pitched, a 1.43 ERA, and 476 strikeouts. He allowed just 46 earned runs while accumulating a 14.8 SO/9. His 186 saves are still the most all-time for an Atlanta reliever.
Traded to San Diego
Unfortunately for fans of Atlanta, all good things must come to an end. The Braves entered a full-blown rebuild of the organization after a disappointing 2014. Kimbrel was ultimately traded to San Diego as part of the first wave of that rebuild. What made matters worse, at least for Braves fans, is the fact that Kimbrel was packaged in a trade with Melvin Upton Jr., presumably to entice the Padres to take on all of Upton’s contract.
Kimbrel was still effective in San Diego, but he did not post his traditionally dominant numbers. His 39 saves and 87 strikeouts were the lowest totals of his career for a full season, while his 2.58 ERA was the highest of his career. In the end, the trade did not work out well for the Padres. San Diego struggled mightily in 2015, en route to a 74-88 record. Fortunately for the Padres, they found a trade suitor in the Red Sox. Boston sent four prospects to San Diego to bring in the All-Star Kimbrel.
Time in Boston
Kimbrel’s struggles continued throughout his first season in Boston. He set career-lows in appearances, saves, innings pitched, and strikeouts. Kimbrel did make two appearances in the ALDS, but neither was a save opportunity. His talent and strikeout ability were still evident. Nevertheless, it began to look like Kimbrel’s best days were left in Atlanta.
The 2017 season has been a blast-from-the-past for Kimbrel. He once again looks like the dominant reliever during his time in Atlanta. Kimbrel is tied for second in MLB with 15 saves. His SO/9 is a robust 16.9, while his BB/9 of 1.1 is the lowest of his career. Kimbrel has walked just three batters, while striking out 45, in 24 innings pitched. The low number of walks have corrected many of Kimbrel’s issues. His ERA now sits at 0.75, and compliments an incredible FIP of 0.33 and an ERA+ of 590. After recording his 15th save on Wednesday night, Kimbrel has now gone 15 appearances without allowing a run. Since April 23, Kimbrel is 1-0, with nine saves, one hold, 28 strikeouts, and just one walk. The Red Sox have also gone 14-1 in those appearances.
Kimbrel looks like a lock for another ASG appearance and is the early frontrunner for the Mariano Rivera AL Reliever of the Year Award. His first few seasons outside of Atlanta were no joy ride, but the dominant Kimbrel is back to terrify hitters in the ninth inning.