The Atlanta Braves have arguably the best and most feared closer in the MLB at the moment in Craig Kimbrel. He routinely hits the upper 90s with a rising fastball and mixes in a hard slider that Kris Medlen described as being “faster than my fastball at times.” He throws with a difficult arm slot for batters to pick up, which makes his fastball and slider appear even faster. Kimbrel is still just 24 years old and has room to improve.
2012 Recap: Kimbrel’s 2012 numbers are absurd. He finished with a 1.01 ERA and 42 saves in 63 games. He issued just 14 walks and struck out 116 batters for a 16.7 K/9. The ERA, saves and strikeout ratio along with a 0.65 WHIP all led the National League in 2012 among closers. He was dominant in all aspects of being a closer and about as close to unhittable as humanly possible. How does he follow up such a spectacular season?
2013 Outlook: In many ways, Kimbrel is the backbone and key to the Braves’ success. Locking down the closer role allows setup men Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty to flourish in those roles. That allows manager Fredi Gonzalez the ability to not overwork his starters and shorten games. Having a reliable bullpen has become an increasingly important aspect of the game to have team success. The top three National League bullpens in ERA (Cincinnati Reds, Braves, Washington Nationals) were all playoff teams. That all begins with a great closer, which makes Kimbrel an anchor on this Braves’ team.
There are two main concerns in regards to Kimbrel entering the 2013 season. He will be a part of Team USA in the World Baseball Classic. Does he get overworked early in the season? Does he worry about results rather than working through spring training with the mindset of improving as a pitcher?
Those are questions we won’t know the answer to until the season plays out, but are worth noting. The other concern is command. He showed outstanding command in 2012, but has had issues in the past at finding the strike zone. For teams to have success off Kimbrel, it usually takes him walking a few batters and getting one timely hit. Therefore, he must make a concerted effort to continue to limit the amount of walks he issues.
It’s hard to imagine Kimbrel being able to match his 2012 season. I’d expect his ERA and WHIP to rise this season but still save around 40 games. His strikeout per nine innings ratio should stay similar to his 2012 numbers. His stuff is that dominant. While matching his 2012 season will be tough, Kimbrel will still be one of the most feared closers in baseball.