Craig Kimbrel is an elite closer. There’s no other appropriate description for him. That’s exactly what the Boston Red Sox were counting on getting when they dealt top prospect Manuel Margot plus others to the San Diego Padres in November 2015. Boston wasn’t concerned about Kimbrel’s sharp decline during his one season in San Diego. For the Red Sox, a team on the rise with intentions of competing for multiple World Series titles, no price was too great to acquire the consensus best closer in baseball. During Kimbrel’s time in Atlanta, no other closer in baseball converted more saves or managed a higher rate of strikeouts per nine innings.
Despite the Red Sox’ confidence, however, things got worse for Kimbrel in 2016 as he posted career highs in ERA (3.40), FIP (2.92), and walks per 9 (5.09) despite maintaining consistently high strikeout rates and increasing the average velocity of his legendary fastball. Watching Kimbrel trot out from the bullpen became an exercise in frustration for Sox fans as he struggled with his command throughout the year. Heading into 2017, there were questions about whether the Red Sox should start thinking about other options in the 9th inning, with newly acquired bullpen arm Tyler Thornburg’s name being thrown around as a possible replacement prior to his injury. Kimbrel must have heard the rumblings, because his work so far in 2017 has been nothing short of vintage Atlanta Braves Craig Kimbrel.
Through his first 12 appearances of 2017, Kimbrel is on pace to break his career best numbers in strikeouts, walks, saves, and a host of others. His average fastball velocity is breaking 98 mph and his favored offspeed knuckle curve is touching career high velocities as well. Most importantly for Kimbrel though is his rediscovered command. Kimbrel is seeing over 51% of his pitches called for strikes inside the zone so far this season, nearly three percentage points more than his career best mark in 2012 when he saved 42 games, struck out 112 hitters and posted a sterling 1.01 ERA across 63 appearances. He’s blown only one save in 9 chances so far in 2017, but in that game two weeks ago against the Blue Jays, he recovered well and pitched a second shutdown inning to earn the win. He’s already struck out the side three times to earn a save this year, a feat which he has accomplished more than any other closer in MLB history.
Kimbrel has certainly shown that he’s capable of maintaining this dominance throughout an entire season, and the Sox seem to need him to do just that as evidenced by their struggles in providing adequate run support for their top starters so far. If Kimbrel does keep this up all season though, Boston will be able to look at Margot’s hot start in San Diego with a smile, knowing that they have the (once again) best closer in baseball waiting at the back end of their bullpen to shatter the hopes and dreams of their opponents.