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Craig Kimbrel May Be The Toughest Pitcher To Hit... Ever

Craig Kimbrel's finger says it all: He's #1.
Craig Kimbrel's finger says it all: He's #1.

Last night, Craig Kimbrel struck out the side again, the 12th time he's done that this year* in just 48 appearances. But for once, I'm not here to talk about Kimbrel's incredible strikeout totals. In what must surely have seemed like a moral victory for the Padres, they also managed to get a baserunner off Kimbrel in between those strikeouts. Granted, it was just an infield hit, but even that was more than what most teams have gotten off him lately.

* By the way, the most strikeout-the-side appearances in a single season is 13... set by Kimbrel last year. Here's the full list.

The hit, by Everth Cabrera, was just the 19th Kimbrel has allowed in 48 innings pitched and 174 batters faced. That means that less than 11% of batters have gotten a hit off Kimbrel; the MLB average is 23%. His average hits allowed per 9 innings pitched (H/9) is a measly 3.56, which would easily be the best mark of all time if he can keep it up (minimum 40 IP):

Rk Player Year Tm H/9 IP H BF H%
1 Craig Kimbrel 2012 ATL 3.56 48.0 19 174 10.9%
2 Eric Gagne 2003 LAD 4.04 82.1 37 306 12.1%
3 Carlos Marmol 2008 CHC 4.12 87.1 40 348 11.5%
4 Jeff Nelson 2001 SEA 4.13 65.1 30 273 11.0%
5 Aroldis Chapman 2012 CIN 4.22 64.0 30 243 12.3%
6 Billy Wagner 1999 HOU 4.22 74.2 35 286 12.2%
7 Rich Gossage 1981 NYY 4.24 46.2 22 173 12.7%
8 Jose Valverde 2003 ARI 4.29 50.1 24 204 11.8%
Provided by View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 8/29/2012.

Kimbrel is almost half a hit per 9 ahead of Eric Gagne's phenomenal 2003 season. He also has the lowest H% ever, edging out Jeff Nelson from the 116-win 2001 Mariners. If Kimbrel pitches 58 innings in all this year (about his current pace), he'd need to allow 7 or fewer hits in his remaining 10 innings to set the record. Very doable.

It's certainly possible that Kimbrel will fade in the season's final month, as he did last year. However, his workload has been much lighter this season, and he's only gotten stronger as the year has gone on. In fact, Kimbrel has allowed just 9 hits in his last 35 innings dating back to mid-May. That's a 2.31 H/9 rate over more than half a season. He also hasn't allowed more than 1 hit in a game all year.

Certainly, Kimbrel has a lot of advantages, as he only pitches one inning a game in fairly prescribed scenarios. But compared to other pitchers with similar roles in the past few decades, no one has been harder to hit than he has been so far in 2012**.

Preventing hits is only part of the equation for Kimbrel's success, however. He's also done a great job of preventing other baserunners. I examine Kimbrel's amazing on-base prevention after the jump.

** Kimbrel is not the only reliever who is near the H/9 record this year, by the way. As you can see from the table, Aroldis Chapman of the Reds has been nearly as good as Kimbrel while pitching a lot more innings. In addition, Huston Street of the Padres has some unbelievable numbers but doesn't have quite enough innings to qualify for the list. Street, who is on the DL now for the 2nd time this year, has allowed just 11 hits in 36 innings (126 batters faced). That's good for an unbelievable 2.75 H/9 (8.7% H%). If he can get the 4 innings to qualify for the list, Street could easily finish ahead of Kimbrel.

In all this season, Kimbrel has allowed just 32 baserunners of any kind--19 hits, 12 walks, 0 hit-by-pitches, and 1 error. That's an average of exactly 6 baserunners per 9 innings. Let's put that figure in perspective. At his current rate, Kimbrel's baserunners per 9 innings mark (BR/9) would be one of the best ever (minimum 40 IP):

Rk Player Year Tm BR/9 IP BR H / BB / HBP / ROE
1 Dennis Eckersley 1989 OAK 5.62 57.2 36 32 / 3 / 1 / 0
2 Dennis Eckersley 1990 OAK 5.77 73.1 47 41 / 4 / 0 / 2
3 Craig Kimbrel 2012 ATL 6.00 48.0 32 19 / 12 / 0 / 1
4 Joaquin Benoit 2010 TBR 6.12 60.1 41 30 / 11 / 0 / 0
5 Jake Northrop 1918 BSN 6.53 40.0 29 26 / 3 / 0 / 0
6 J.J. Putz 2007 SEA 6.53 71.2 52 37 / 13 / 2 / 0
7 Mariano Rivera 2008 NYY 6.62 70.2 52 41 / 6 / 2 / 3
8 Eric Gagne 2003 LAD 6.67 82.1 61 37 / 20 / 3 / 1
9 Sergio Romo 2011 SFG 6.75 48.0 36 29 / 5 / 0 / 2
Cla Meredith 2006 SDP 6.75 50.2 38 30 / 6 / 2 / 0
Provided by View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 8/29/2012.

Only one pitcher has finished with a lower baserunner rate than Kimbrel has so far: Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley, in his two best seasons. To break the record, again assuming that Kimbrel pitches 58 total innings, he'd have to allow just 4 or fewer baserunners in the remaining 10 innings. That's a tall order, even as well as Craig has been pitching lately.

Kimbrel's first 6 weeks or so weren't very good by this measure: 20 baserunners in his first 14 IP, or 12.9 BR/9. However, since that point, he's allowed just 12 baserunners in 34 IP, or 3.18 BR/9. That's 9 hits, 2 walks, and 1 batter who reached on an error. At one point, Kimbrel went 26 straight outings (1 inning each) without allowing a walk--not bad for a guy whose main weakness has always been his control. And of course he hasn't hit a batter all year.

Aroldis Chapman, by the way, has allowed 53 baserunners in 64 IP this year, good for a 7.45 BR/9, second best in baseball. That includes 4 hit batsmen and 2 reaches on error. Huston Street has allowed just 19 baserunnners in his 36 innings, a 4.75 BR/9 rate that would be easily the best ever if he had enough IP to qualify for the list.

Finally, you may have noticed that Kimbrel got his 32nd save last night. He also allowed his 32nd baserunner, so he still has exactly as many saves as baserunners allowed. Saves aren't a very good statistic, but still, having as many saves as baserunners is mighty impressive.

In baseball history, only one pitcher has had more saves than baserunners and at least 30 saves: Eckersley in 1990, with 48 saves and 47 baserunners allowed. Huston Street has 21 saves and 19 baserunners allowed this year, so if you lower the standards, he could qualify. The next closest to achieving this feat are Eckersley in 1989 (33 saves, 36 BR) and Gagne in 2003 (55 saves, 61 BR).

Amazingly, I've barely scratched the surface of Kimbrel's dominance in this post. For instance, I haven't even mentioned Kimbrel's ungodly strikeout rate, which currently ranks as the best all-time (barely by K/9, easily by K%). Kimbrel could even end up striking out more than half the batters he faces--he's at 49.4% so far. My mind is thoroughly boggled by that possibility.

If Kimbrel can close down this season with as much dominance as he closes individual games, we may be witnessing the greatest season, purely on a rate basis, in MLB history.

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