2011 National League Rookie of the Year Craig Kimbrel.
After a spectacular rookie season that exceeded all realistic expectations by both fans and management, Craig Kimbrel has already put himself into the top tier of closers in all of baseball. Kimbrel's dominance in pressure situations, blazing fastball and ability to rack up strikeouts have made him one of the game's most exciting players as well.
This article takes a look at where Kimbrel ranks among the top eight closers in the game based on their 2011 seasons' as well as their past success.
Since taking over the Giants closer spot in 2008, Brian Wilson quietly became one of the game's best. He only really started to get major national attention in 2010, when he led the National League in saves and pitched 11.2 postseason innings without giving up an earned run as the Giants made a surprising run to win the World Series.
Wilson is 20-20 with a 3.17 ERA and 170 saves during his career. The three-time All-Star averages 9.6 strikeouts per nine innings, helping him to dominate opposing hitters.
Wilson slipped a bit last year due to injury and the huge workload he had in 2010, which saw him pitch 86.1 innings over 80 games between the regular season and the playoffs. Still, in an "off-year," Wilson's ERA was 3.11 with 36 saves and an All-Star appearance.
Heath Bell has been among the best closers in the game ever since he took over the job in 2009. In his three seasons as a closer, Bell has posted 132 saves with a minimum of 42 saves in each of those seasons.
As good as Bell is, he is a bit overrated. Part of the reason no other club would meet the Padres' high demands at the trading deadline last year is because some teams feel he gets an advantage pitching in spacious Petco Park. For example, his ERA at home was 2.15 last year to 2.88 on the road.
Even though he has been aided by a great home-field advantage, he has still averaged 44 saves over the last three seasons and converted at least 88 percent of his opportunities in each of those seasons.
Coming into the year with only 20 career saves, the Pirates made Joel Hanrahan their closer over 2010 All-Star setup man Evan Meek. The Pirates were just hoping to get a solid performance out of Hanrahan but instead received a break-out season that saw him become an All-Star himself.
Hanrahan went 1-4 with a 1.83 ERA and 1.05 WHIP with 40 saves in 44 opportunities during his All-Star season. That pushed him up into the game's best in only one season.
Hanrahan actually has some room for improvement in 2011, as his 8.0 strikeouts per nine innings was the lowest he posted since his rookie season back in 2007. Even if he doesn't rack up the strikeouts in 2012, the Pirates know their late leads are safe once Hanrahan enters the game.
After spending time as a cell phone salesman and bartender, Brewers closer John Axford is the most surprising member of the elite closers in the game. Axford, who had a strong rookie season in 2010, saving 24 of 27 opportunities after taking over the job mid-season, really emerged in 2011.
In his first full season in the closer role, Axford went 2-2 with a 1.95 ERA and 46 saves in 48 opportunities. Overall in his Major League career he is now 10-4 with a 2.26 ERA and 71 saves in 76 chances, quietly making him one of the best in the game.
Despite not getting the national attention he deserves because he plays in small-market Milwaukee with bigger named stars like Braun, Fielder, Greinke and Gallardo, Axford is almost a sure thing to save the game.
Jose Valverde had a truly dominant year for the Detroit Tigers in 2011, leading the American League in games, games finished and saves while going a perfect 49 for 49 in save opportunities. Overall with his 2.24 ERA in the regular season, he had one of the most impressive seasons in baseball. He was good enough to finish fifth in Cy Young Award voting ahead of CJ Wilson, Dan Haren, and Mariano Rivera.
It's not like this is the first big year for Valverde, as he led the National League in saves in both 2007 and 2008. In his Major League career, he is now 23-27 with a 3.02 ERA and 242 saves.
Valverde may occasionally have some struggles, but he spent 2011 putting himself into the top five closers in the game with his perfect season.
After going 4-3 with a 2.10 ERA and 1.04 WHIP while posting a National League leading and Major League rookie record 46 saves, Craig Kimbrel is among the best in the game. His 127 strikeouts in 77 innings just show how dominant he really was.
The only question with Kimbrel is how his arm will respond to being over-used as a rookie, as he has few flaws now that he has managed to slice his walk rate to something a little closer to average. The only reason he isn't ranked second on this list is because he hasn't been in the game long enough to rank ahead of Jonathan Papelbon.
It is safe to say that if he can keep pitching at this pace, he could challenge the likes of Mariano Rivera among the elite closers in the history of the game.
As a rookie, Jonathan Papelbon took over the closer role for the Boston Red Sox and had a huge year. After six seasons with the Sox, Papelbon went 23-19 with a 2.33 ERA and 219 saves to go with a pair of World Series rings. Papelbon has converted 88 percent of his 248 save opportunities.
Papelbon left for what he thought was a better opportunity in Philadelphia earlier this month, but his combination of regular and postseason success over time as well as doing it in the American League East are enough to rank him just below Mariano Rivera as the second-best closer in the game today.
Is there any question? It's obvious that Mariano Rivera is the best closer in the game both today and ever. In his career, he is 75-57 with a 2.21 ERA and Major League record 603 saves. As a 41 year-old last year, he went 1-2 with a 1.91 ERA and 44 saves.
The game's all-time leader in saves is also the most clutch postseason performer ever. In 96 postseason games, Rivera is 8-1 with a 0.70 ERA and 42 saves, helping the Yankees win five World Series titles.
Rivera is head and shoulders above everyone else for the honor of being the game's best closer. Even though he's going to be 42 years old in 2012, he's still the guy I'd most like to have on the mound with a one run lead in the ninth.