Craig Kimbrel took Braves Nation by storm in his first stint with the Braves in 2010, and looks to be the closer going forward in 2011.
Kimbrel, 22, possesses great closer-like stuff. An upper-90s fastball to go along with a plus slider, and Kimbrel has all the potential in the world to be a perennial All-Star as a closer. He’s been a top prospect for the Braves the last few years, and 2011 could very well be his breakout year.
In 21 appearances at the major league level in 2010, Kimbrel piled up an astounding 0.44 earned run average. Opposing batters only hit .125 against him, and he picked up 40 strikeouts in 20.2 innings pitched. Those are the numbers of a hard-throwing closer, making it look even more apparent that he will be successful both in 2011 and beyond.
His one problem though, was his inability to consistently throw strikes. Kimbrel walked 16 batters in those 20.2 innings, a number way too high if he is to be dominant in 2011. In three minor league seasons, Kimbrel walked 95 batters in 151 innings, that’s 0.6 walks per inning. If walks start stringing together, big innings and blown saves tend to happen.
Kimbrel hasn’t had much problem giving up runs though, even with those walks. His minor league career ERA of 1.85 was plenty good enough, and shows that even with walks, his stuff is dominant enough to get him out of any jams he puts himself in.
Kimbrel will likely get to fill the shoes of possible future Hall of Famer Billy Wagner, who recorded 37 saves with a 1.43 ERA in his final season. They have very comparative stuff, with Wager throwing left-handed and Kimbrel throwing right-handed. It won’t be an easy job for whoever is given the job to close games for the Braves this year, but Kimbrel never got fazed at any point during the regular season or postseason, where he only gave up one hit in 4.1 innings of work, while also striking out seven of the 13 batters he faced.
Bill James has predicted that Kimbrel will go through the 2011 season as the Braves closer, saying he will pick up 25 saves and end the year with a 2.57 ERA. Seems to be a fair prediction, and one most Braves fans will probably love to have.
The only apparent setback for Kimbrel is his inconsistency in hitting the strike zone, and with some extra work during spring training with pitching coach Roger McDowell that should start to take a downturn going forward. Kimbrel has always had the potential to be a closer and 2011 will be his first chance to show he can actually do it.