There’s no such thing as a true, 100% automatic closer. However, the closest thing in today’s game would have to be Craig Kimbrel of the Atlanta Braves.
The Braves are seeking its third straight playoff appearance and in all honesty, Kimbrel is just as big of a reason as anybody that Atlanta has seen postseason baseball the last two years. Sure, he wasn’t the team’s closer when they won the NL Wild Card in 2010 and he did blow some saves that cost them playoff baseball in September 2011, but his importance to this club cannot be emphasized enough. The Bravos have won four in a row entering Tuesday and Kimbrel has converted saves in two of them. In fact, Atlanta has won only seven games the entire month of August, and five of them came from games Kimbrel has saved.
Of course, saves do not tell the whole story. He’s healthy and goes a lot of innings for a closer in today’s game. Here’s somebody who blows batters away with a fastball that can touch 100 miles an hour. He shows his dominance, striking out far many more batters than he walks. He’s not the person a slugger wants to face, giving up just 11 home runs in his career and only a single big fly in 2014.
Kimbrel is also way ahead of the game. Already at 26, he’s converted 176 saves, the most in Braves history. All time saves leader Mariano Rivera didn’t get his very first save until he was 26. Trevor Hoffman, whose career saves record Rivera broke, didn’t get his first save until age 25 and Hoffman was the first closer to reach both 500 and 600 saves.
All of that is very impressive, but at the rate Kimbrel is going, where would he rank on the list of the greatest closers of all time? He’s likely to be in a Braves uniform for at least the next three seasons, with a team option for 2018 and a $1 million buyout for that year.
Even though Kimbrel is human and isn’t perfect, he’s consistently showed his worth and the numbers do not lie. What’s most concerning is not Kimbrel, but Kimbrel’s team. The Braves are 6 games back of the Washington Nationals for first place in the NL East. Had the season ended Monday night, Atlanta would have failed to qualify for the playoffs, despite a 7-3 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates, because they would be a mere game out of a Wild Card spot.
Rivera is generally considered the greatest closer of all time. Certainly, there are many reasons behind such a belief. It’s more than just his longevity, holding the all time saves record, having the highest career ERA+ of 205 and a 1.000 WHIP. Rivera was one of the biggest reasons why the New York Yankees had so much postseason success when he was there, and with him growing himself as a postseason legend, he helped move himself forward as the consensus best reliever ever. His regular season dominance speaks for itself, but it seems to be that his playoff dominance also played a part in his immortality.
That’s what may potentially hinder Kimbrel and even hurts Hoffman to an extent. Hoffman is deserving of being enshrined in the Hall of Fame, but like it or not, Hoffman appeared in only 6 postseason series in his career, Rivera was in 32 of them. So far Kimbrel has been in 3. Rivera was crucial in the Yankees winning the World Series five times between 1996 and 2009. He was especially lights out in 1998, 1999 and 2009, and was the 1999 World Series MVP. Hoffman’s only World Series was in 1998 his San Diego Padres were swept by Rivera’s Yankees. In that Fall Classic, Hoffman had a 9.00 ERA and 1.500 WHIP in 2 innings pitched. What if the Padres pulled off one of the greatest World Series upsets of all time and beat the Yankees? What if San Diego then went on to win 2-3 more championships after that? Would Hoffman have an argument of being above Rivera?
That’s what makes it so hard to measure Kimbrel at the rate things are going. So far he’s brought it come playoff time, putting up some pretty good numbers. In fact, the lone game the Braves won in last year’s NLDS, Kimbrel got the save. He did his job against the St. Louis Cardinals in the 2012 NL Wild Card game and two years prior he pitched very well against the eventual World Series champion San Francisco Giants, but despite his efforts, Atlanta still has not won a postseason series since 2001, when Kimbrel was 13 years old. At this point he’s on the right track to Cooperstown, but what if he spends most or all of his career on a Braves team which struggles to make a deep postseason run? Up until now, Kimbrel has hardly been the one to blame, but fair or not, his greatness may take a hit because of that.
In fact, if any closer wins the Cy Young in the future, would it really be that much of a surprise if it was Atlanta’s 26-year-old stud who won it? He’s had a pair of back-to-back top 5 NL Cy Young finishes the last couple of seasons, and it’s not unrealistic to say he could finish high again in 2014. Now, winning is unlikely, given Clayton Kershaw‘s possible NL MVP campaign. Adam Wainwright and Johnny Cueto seem like they could round out the top 3, but a top 4 or top 5 finish for Kimbrel again seems absolutely plausible. Why is all of this worthy of mention? Even though neither Rivera nor Hoffman won a Cy Young, Rivera finished 2nd in 2005 and had a trio of other top 3 finishes in his career. Hoffman placed 2nd twice: 1998 and 2006. If Kimbrel keeps up the track he’s going on, but never has a top 3 Cy Young finish, how much does that impact him on the all time closer’s list?
Right now, he’s making it all happen when so many teams make a change at closer at such a frequent pace. After all, how many hitters in MLB would say it’s fun having to face Kimbrel, knowing they’re looking at that famous stare down and that some real heat is about to come their way? Probably not a whole lot. Hitters can get to him, but that hasn’t happened too often the way Kimbrel’s career has gone so far, now has it? If he comes in, most likely it’s game over and he’s been one huge reason the Braves have made it to the playoffs two years running when bullpen woes could potentially hurt a club’s postseason chances. He’s not a Hall of Famer yet, but if any closer right now under the age of 30 is headed the right way, it’s Kimbrel. Though he needs to stay healthy and consistent, with his current pace, breaking Rivera’s all time saves record seems realistic.
However, while it may not hinder his Hall of Fame chances, his rank on the list of the greatest closers of all time may suffer. If he keeps up what he’s doing now, he’s bound to be up there, but if his teams don’t go very far in the playoffs or he doesn’t finish slightly higher in the Cy Young voting, it’s possible he won’t be considered as great or as legendary as others are. That may not be entirely his fault, but that could play a part in how he’s judged.