Craig Kimbrel just notched his 400th career save against his former team, the Atlanta Braves. With this happening, what better time than look back and remember how truly dominate he was when he played for the Braves?
Kimbrel started his career in the majors on May 7th in 2010. He only pitched 20.2 innings that season, but was very good with an ERA of 0.44, 1.53 FIP, and 17.4 strikeouts per nine innings. He struggled with control some, with 7.0 walks per nine innings though. It should be noted, he was not utilized primarily as a closer in 2010.
How good was Kimbrel as an Atlanta Brave?
Kimbrel notching his most recent milestone has brought up debate among Braves fans among who was the best Braves closer.
Craig Kimbrel had five years in a Braves uniform, so let’s look at his numbers during that span. In 289.0 innings pitched, Kimbrel was elite at preventing runs. He had an ERA+ of 266 (1.43 ERA). As a refresher, ERA+ is adjusted ERA where 100 is league average. Kimbrel was 166.0 percent better than league average at preventing runs over a five year stretch. ERA+ works well here because it compares a player to other players of the same year. Offense ebbs and flows over different time periods, so looking strictly that ERA itself is far from perfect.
This came along with a 1.52 FIP, 0.903 WHIP, 4.8 hits per nine innings, 0.4 HR per nine innings, 3.4 walks per nine innings, and 14.8 strikeouts per nine innings (4.4 SO/W ratio).
Typically, it is interesting to look at Wins Above Replacement to get a good gauge on a player’s value. Closers can be tricky because as times have gotten more modern, closer pitch fewer innings per outing, resulting in less WAR. That being said, Kimbrel was impressive. In that five year span, Kimbrel accumulated 12.0 bWAR which is approximately 2.6 per full season, and 10.9 fWAR, which equates to approximately 2.36 WAR per full season.
Total number of saves can be circumstantial, due to how many opportunities a pitcher gets, but Kimbrel had 186 for the Braves. He also led the league in saves in all four seasons that he was a full time closer.
How does Kimbrel compare to other big name closers in history?
Just to reiterate, we are looking at how dominate Kimbrel was as a Brave. So, by setting the parameters at looking at other closers who are HOFers (or possible HOF) closers best five year stretches, it can help open our eyes to how good Kimbrel was as a Brave.
John Smoltz is obviously going to be mentioned among the greats. His time as a closer for the Braves is fondly remembered for a good reason. It was not only a great story of recovery, but he was dominant in his craft.
Smoltz was a closer for four seasons, and after his run was arguably the best closer in Atlanta Braves history. In 285.1 innings pitched, he has an ERA+ of 162, 2.47 FIP, 1.016 WHIP, 7.4 hits per nine innings, 0.7 HRs per nine innings, 1.7 walks per nine innings, and 9.5 strikeouts per nine innings (5.45 SO/W ratio).
As far as WAR goes, Smoltz had 7.4 bWAR which equates to approximately 2.0 per full season. He had 8.8 fWAR, which equates to 2.37 fWAR per full season. Smoltz had 154 saves for the Braves.
As an example of why WAR can be finicky with closers in different time periods is that we can see that Kimbrel averaged 0.98 innings per outing, and Smoltz averaged 1.16 innings per outing. This is in no way diminishing Smoltz’s value. In fact, it is impressive what he did. It just simply shows that you can’t just compare overall WAR in a vacuum to argue effectiveness while on the mound.
Billy Wagner is another former Brave who was dominant in his career, and possibly could be in the Hall Of Fame by the time his time on the ballot is through.
If we look at his best five year stretch at preventing runs, we see why he is getting so many HOF votes. In 349.2 innings pitched from 2001-2005, he had an ERA+ of 208 (2.14 ERA), 2.69 FIP, 0.898 WHIP, 0.8 HRs per nine IP, 5.7 hits per nine IP, 2.3 walks per nine IP, and 10.9 strikeouts per nine IP.
During this time, he recorded 177 saves while accumulating 2.6 bWAR per full season, and 1.99 fWAR per full season.
Other HOF closers
Trevor Hoffman had a stellar career that ultimately resulted in him being enshrined into the HOF. Sticking to the parameters of best five year stretch, we see that from 1996-2000 he accumulated 215 saves over 382.0 innings. During this this time he had an ERA+ of 176 (2.31), 2.51 FIP, 0.945 WHIP, 6.1 hits per nine IP, 0.7 HR per nine IP, 2.4 walks per nine IP, and 11.0 strikeouts per nine IP.
During this time he had 2.8 bWAR per full season, and 2.64 fWAR.
Mariano Rivera was the first ever unanimous 1st ballot HOFer, and is arguably the best closer of all time. As far as preventing runs go, his best stretch was from 2008-2012 in which he pitched 266.2 innings and accumulated 165 saves.
During this stretch he had an ERA+ of 257, 2.45 FIP, 0.825 WHIP, 6.1 hits per nine IP, 1.3 walks per nine IP, and 8.8 strikeouts per nine IP.
Side note, this is why you should never use a W-L record to evaluate a relief pitcher. Rivera had a 14-14 record in this span.
He averaged 3.5 bWAR and 2.41 fWAR per full season.
Dennis Eckersley is another well-known closer who happens to be enshrined in the HOF as well.
His best five year stretch was from 1988-1992. In 359.2 innings, he had an ERA+ of 198 (1.90 ERA), 2.06 FIP, 0.792 WHIP, 6.2 hits per nine IP, 0.7 HR per nine IP, 1.0 walks per nine IP, and 9.5 strikeouts per nine IP.
During this time he averaged 2.7 bWAR and 2.61 fWAR per full season.
Rich “Goose” Gossage is yet another well known (for good reason) HOF pitcher who spent most of his career as a closer.
His best five year stretch was from 1977-1981 in which he accumulated 124 saves over an extensive 471.1 innings. As can be seen, back in this timeframe, closers were used in a much different manner. In fact, Gossage averaged 4.3 bWAR per full season.
During that stretch he had an ERA+ of 201 (1.91 ERA), 2.71 FIP, 1.033 WHIP, 5.9 hits per nine IP, 0.6 HR per nine IP, 3.4 walks per nine IP, and 8.9 strikeouts per nine IP.
There are quite a few other well-known closers as well. Rollie Fingers is well known, and in his best five year stretch he averaged an ERA+ of 136. Bruce Sutter averaged a 170 ERA+ in his best five years, and Lee Smith averaged a 140 ERA+ in his best five year run.
This was not written to say that Kimbrel is the greatest of time or anything of the sort. However, it does show that his five years in Atlanta stacks up with the best of them. In fact, of the nine other closers listed, he was the best at preventing runs:
Kimbrel – 266 ERA+
Smoltz – 162 ERA+
Wagner – 208 ERA+
Hoffman – 176 ERA+
Rivera – 257 ERA+
Eckersley – 198 ERA+
Gossage – 201 ERA+
Fingers – 136 ERA+
Sutter – 170 ERA+
Smith – 140 ERA+
Kimbrel was also 1st in limiting HRs per nine IP, 1st in strikeouts per nine IP, 1st in preventing hits per nine IP, 1st/lowest FIP, and 3rd in WAR per inning pitched of this group (walks hurt his WAR).
Of course, Kimbrel has fallen off in recent seasons, but he truly was elite when he wore a Braves uniform.