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Braves prospect retrospect: Craig Kimbrel

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The Atlanta Braves had themselves a record-setting closer right off the bat in Kimbrel’s rookie season. Let’s take a look back at his career.

85th MLB All Star Game

Craig Kimbrel’s five-year run with the Atlanta Braves was the stuff from which legends are made. While his later career hasn’t panned out the way it started, there was arguably no more dominant closer in the game from 2011 to 2015.

Let’s take a look back at Kimbrel’s rise to stardom.

Craig Kimbrel’s 100-mph fastball makes him a top-100 prospect

Kimbrel grew up in Alabama, where he not only played baseball, but quarterback for his high school football team. He went to Wallace State Community College and as a freshman was absolutely absurd, going 8-0. The Braves drafted Kimbrel in the 33rd round after that 2007 season but, like Rodney Dangerfield, Kimbrel went back to school. After another impressive season in which Kimbrel struck out 123 batters in 81 innings, the Braves made him the third-round pick in the 2008 MLB draft.

Kimbrel stuck around this time. And the fast track began.

The 6-foot, right-handed flamethrower climbed three rungs of the minor league ladder in his 2008 debut. He finished the season with two relief appearances in High-A Myrtle Beach. Altogether, he posted a 0.51 ERA with 10 saves ad 56 strikeouts in 35.1 innings pitched across all three levels.

He reached Triple-A in 2009 and though he struggled in the Arizona Fall League that autumn, he was named to the Rising Stars team.

Entering 2010, Kimbrel was known as a young fireballer with a triple-digit fastball and a nasty curve that generated a ton of swing-and-misses out of the bullpen, albeit a bit wild at times. He was sensational in Gwinnett that season — a 1.62 ERA, 23 saves and 83 strikeouts in 55.2 innings — and was even more impressive in his Atlanta debut. In his first 21 appearances in the bigs, Kimbrel went 4-0 with a 0.44 ERA and 40 strikeouts in 20.2 innings.

He entered the 2011 season a top-100 prospect in baseball by both Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus. John Sickels had him as the sixth-best prospect in the Braves system.

A year later, he’d be the best closer in baseball.

Kimbrel’s record-setting debut with the Braves

It was quite the rookie season for Kimbrel, wasn’t it? Let’s talk about some records.

  • Most saves by a rookie before the All Star Break (both National and American League)
  • Fastest Braves pitcher to reach 100 strikeouts (in just 59.1 innings)
  • Most saves by a rookie in a single season (National and American League)

The end of that season was a rough one for Kimbrel and the Braves, but his accomplishments couldn’t be ignored, becoming the first NL Rookie of the Year to gain all 32 first place votes in a decade. He led all relievers with 127 strikeouts, tied for the NL lead with 46 saves and tossed 34.2 scoreless innings, the longest stretch in the majors that season.

The next three seasons were more of the same. Kimbrel led the NL in saves in 2012, 2013 and 2014 (leading the majors with 50 in 2013) while keeping his ERA low and his WHIP even lower. He became one of the most feared pitchers in baseball with a sinking fastball that could saw your bat in half and a notorious stare down that would make even the best hitters think twice.

For all his accolades and success, Kimbrel was set for a big payday. That made him a casualty of the Braves rebuild and on April 5, 2015 just before the MLB season got underway, Kimbrel was shipped to the San Diego Padres for Austin Riley (I know, I know, but he’s the only one I choose to remember).

Craig Kimbrel’s legacy

It’s hard to believe that after all that Kimbrel accomplished in his first four full seasons, he would bounce around as much as he has. Now on his third team in the past six years, Kimbrel will certainly will have some naysayers on how his career will be remembered.

Kimbrel’s five-year run in Atlanta put him on an unquestionable Hall of Fame trajectory. He had a 1.43 ERA and a 0.958 WHIP with a 14.8 strikeout-per-nine rate in 289 innings pitched. His 186 saves (thats 37.2 per year) are still the most in Braves history. He struck out nearly 45 percent of all batters he faced.

But Kimbrel was never the same after he left Atlanta and is now hardly recognizable as the dominant closer he once was. His velocity is down, trickling more slowly over the years and his knuckle curve doesn’t get the swing-and-miss it once did when it was amongst the best curves in generating whiffs throughout his early career. He did win a World Series as the Boston Red Sox closer in 2018, but his performance was not a memorable one.

He declined his option following that World Series and wasn’t signed until roughly halfway through 2019. His walk rate has since continued to climb, while that hard contact has also risen drastically, his renowned soft-contact rates now nearly forgotten. There’s no denying Kimbrel has thrown a ton of innings, currently the active leader in games finished, but it seems at 32 there should be some magic left in that arm.

Whatever the case, Kimbrel is the active leader in saves with 348, which places him 12th all time. And for a solid five-years, he was the most feared closer in the game. And you can make the case he’s the best closer in Braves history as well. That’s a good five years.

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