How Craig Kimbrel became one of the greatest closers of all time: 'The hitters never stood a chance' (2024)

ST LOUIS — After Craig Kimbrel notched save No. 370 to close out a breathtaking Cubs comeback Tuesday night, it was another opportunity for his teammates to gush about his brilliance on the mound.

“That guy’s a Hall of Famer, one of the best to ever do it,” Ian Happ said. “Every time this guy pitches, he breaks another record. Every time he goes out there, they’re giving him the ball and saying, ‘Congrats on passing this legend or that legend.’ He’s dominant and fun to watch.”

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Kimbrel’s recent success has been all the more impressive because of just how far he seemed to have fallen. When the Cubs added him in the middle of the 2019 season, he was viewed as a key piece of a playoff-quality roster. However, he struggled to stay healthy, and when he was on the mound he was incredibly ineffective. The start of a disjointed 2020 season didn’t give much hope, either. But Kimbrel never stopped working, knowing that his former self was in there waiting to be unleashed.

By the middle of 2020, Kimbrel was once again dominating, and he’s more than carried it over into 2021. When asked if the struggles eventually took him to another level, Kimbrel didn’t hesitate.

“Absolutely,” he said. “Those struggles, if anything, made me dig a little deeper and made me look at myself a lot more. It made me go back to where I was when I first got called up to the big leagues. You have everything you need, you just need to put it together. That’s where I was in 2019 and the start of 2020. Kind of getting kicked in the face there for a little bit and really looking at myself was good for me. I had to sit back, slow down and figure out what makes me good and go back to doing it.”

Looking back on Kimbrel’s career, some might think he’s being hyperbolic. But the stuff is certainly still there. Kimbrel’s fastball is sitting at 97 mph on the season, and he’s commanding his curveball as well as ever. And taking some key statistics into account — ERA, strikeout rate and walk rate — he’s as good as he was when he first arrived in the big leagues and took baseball by storm.

When Kimbrel debuted in 2010, baseball was a very different game than it is now. Relievers very rarely came up and immediately dominated. And if they did, it was usually a former starter converting to the bullpen, or a future starter breaking into the bigs as a reliever. Not Kimbrel.

“There’s plenty of guys coming up now throwing 97, but they aren’t throwing his 97,” former teammate and big-league reliever Eric O’Flaherty said. “Even in today’s game, there’s something different about it. We’d talk to hitters on other teams and they’d say, ‘It’s a sneaky 98.’ They’d seen 98 before, but this was different. And to go with that, he had a nasty knuckle curve.”

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When the Braves selected Kimbrel out of Wallace State Community College in Hanceville, Alabama in the third round of the 2008 draft, it was with the intention that he would come out of the bullpen. There was a brief conversation about him sticking as a starter, but when they made it clear he could move quickly as a reliever, Kimbrel relented.

“I knew ever since I made the transition that it made sense,” Kimbrel said. “The style, the aggressiveness with which I pitch, it plays a lot better in the bullpen. When I started, I was going out there and throwing 100 pitches in four or five innings. That’s not what you want to do. The bullpen was definitely my calling.”

Coming up through the Braves system, Kimbrel quickly realized he had the potential to be pretty good.

“It’s human nature to try and evaluate everyone around you,” Kimbrel said. “As I did that, I thought, ‘Ok, I can play at this level.’ And every time I got to a new level I thought, ‘I can play here.’ I always felt like I could do this. There were things I needed to make better — throw more strikes, control my breaking ball more. I was not only being told these things, I could see it myself. And I was able to do it.”

The Braves were true to their word, and less than two years after he was drafted, Kimbrel was up with the big-league team, helping a playoff-caliber squad with an already strong bullpen.

Even when he was still working his way through the minors, Kimbrel was being talked about as a future closer. Cubs manager David Ross was a catcher with the Braves during Kimbrel’s first three years in the big leagues, and remembered just how dominant Atlanta’s bullpen was at the time. Still, Kimbrel managed to catch everyone’s eye.

“Back then, you didn’t really think too many closers in the minor leagues would translate to the big leagues,” Ross said. “They’d be middle relievers or if they were really good, maybe they set up for an established guy. When he came in, Billy Wagner was a huge influence. We had such a good bullpen, SI did an article on all those guys. And he still stood out.”

How Craig Kimbrel became one of the greatest closers of all time: 'The hitters never stood a chance' (1)

Kimbrel with the Braves in 2012 (Kevin C. Cox / Getty Images)

He may have been a quiet rookie, but it was hard not to notice how good Kimbrel was when he arrived in the majors.

“There was no mistaking it when he came up,” O’Flaherty said. “He had the stuff to pitch in the league and be around for a while.”

“(We saw it) really quickly,” former reliever Peter Moylan said. “It was in moments where he was able to come back from walking the bases loaded. Normally, young guys get in a situation like that and the pitching coach or manager will panic and get someone loose behind him. But Craig has the ability to get out of those situations himself. From the very early stages of him coming up, we knew it was special.”

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One of the first times Ross caught Kimbrel was in the eighth inning of a tie game at Kansas City. Kimbrel walked the first batter, allowed a roller that was ruled an error, threw a passed ball, then walked another hitter.

“I take a trip to the mound just to slow things down,” Ross said. “He just looks right at me and says, ‘Just set up middle-middle.’ So I go back, set up right down the middle and he went punchy, punchy, popup and we went on to win the game. From that point on I was just like, ‘Let the stuff ride.’”

Kimbrel’s tendency to get himself into trouble, then so quickly out of it, prompted his teammates to come up with a nickname.

“That’s when we coined the term ‘Craig vs. Kimbrel,’” O’Flaherty said. “Because it seemed like the hitters weren’t even part of the battle. It was just about whether he could throw three strikes before he threw four balls. That’s how good the stuff was.”

Kimbrel’s walk rate has wavered over the course of his career. Despite the nasty stuff, it was an issue for him throughout his amateur days, and was the primary reason he never was truly considered as a starter at the professional level. But according to former teammates, Kimbrel sometimes thought he had the ability to paint the corners like some sort of command artist.

“Craig thinks he’s Greg Maddux, but we all know he’s not,” Moylan said. “We’d sit around and have conversations about pitching and he swears to this day that his pinpoint accuracy was something that rivaled Maddux. I said, ‘Listen dude, you got away with throwing 98 at people’s eyeballs.’ Wagner used to do it as well. Everybody does it now.”

“His mentality sometimes out there, he thinks he’s Greg Maddux carving guys up,” Ross said. “But when he gets into just blowing doors off, that’s when he’s at his best.”

Kimbrel seems to be past that part of his career. He knows how his stuff works and doesn’t mess around. He can drop the curve for a strike, make them chase it with two strikes and lives at the top of the zone with his heat.

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“This is who he is,” O’Flaherty said. “If you’re watching him now and your jaw drops because you can’t believe how dominant he is, that’s who he was his whole career in Atlanta. It never wavered. He struggled a little bit with walks, but from then on it was just Craig vs. Kimbrel. The hitters never stood a chance.”

When Kimbrel first arrived in the big leagues, only five times had a reliever posted a 40 percent or greater strikeout rate in a season. Kimbrel was able to accomplish the feat in each of his first three seasons. In 2012, he became the first to ever top the 50 percent mark in a full season. Only Aroldis Chapman has managed to top that mark in a 162-game season.

“Everyone talked about it,” Moylan said. “Who has the best fastball in the game? Craig Kimbrel. Who is the nastiest closer in the game? Craig Kimbrel. He was the talk of the game for a long period of time.”

In October of his first season, Kimbrel was able to display his skillset with all eyes on him.

“We were in a playoff game against the (eventual World Series Champion) Giants,” Ross said. “Bobby (Cox) took out Craig to bring in Mike Dunn. You look back now and you’re like, ‘I can’t believe he took out Craig Kimbrel for Dunner!’”

Dunn was a veteran lefty at the time and Kimbrel just a rookie. Still, Kimbrel was dominating that postseason. The only runs charged to Kimbrel in that series scored after he’d left that Game 3 for Dunn. Kimbrel appeared in all four games, at one point working two perfect innings and striking out four.

“It was just extremely dominant on that huge stage,” O’Flaherty said. “That’s kind of the only question you have when a guy is being groomed to be a closer, if he can handle the pressure. Because there are plenty of guys who have the stuff, but they buckle when the game is on the line. That was as big a situation as you could throw a kid like him into and he got better. When I saw that, I knew he’d be around for a while.”

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Even the opposition would be in awe when facing Kimbrel.

“He could really get above a barrel before anyone else could really do that,” Ross said. “I remember Buster Posey, it was 3-0 or 3-1, taking a ball right down the middle off Kimbrel. As soon as he took it, he dropped an F-bomb. It was one of those that rode the bottom of the zone. He thought it was going to be low and it just planed out. He’s one of those guys who hitters don’t see the ball well and they chase.”

Kimbrel is now past the questions about whether he can handle the big moment. He has gotten through the roughest patch of his career to date — one that many thought would be the end of it — and looks as good as ever. What people wonder now is just how good he’ll end up being.

“That’s a Hall of Fame talent,” O’Flaherty said. “It’s just a matter of doing it for a duration long enough to rack up the numbers. I’ve never seen a better reliever than him when he’s locked in.”

Bouncing back to the level he’s at now — arguably the best closer in the game at the age of 33 — means he could end up putting up the type of save numbers that very few have. He’s currently ninth on the all-time list, seven behind Joe Nathan and 20 from equalling Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley.

“He’s back to doing what he loves and what he should be doing,” Moylan said. “I’m here for it, I love it. I honestly think he’s got five years of racking up saves.”

Five years? Kimbrel isn’t putting those types of limits on himself.

“Billy Wagner told me this near the end of his career,” Kimbrel said. “He said, the moment you quit getting the butterflies and excited about going out and doing this job and playing this game, it’s the moment you’ve told yourself you need to step away from the game. You don’t have the love for the game anymore. And you gotta have that love because this game is so demanding each and every day.”

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Kimbrel says he’s still got that desire to go out and compete. Becoming the all-time saves leader isn’t realistic; Mariano Rivera holds that mantel at 652. But Kimbrel is climbing up the list quickly.

“I still got a long ways to go,” Kimbrel said. “I’ve had some really good years and I’ve been able to do it for 10 years. The thing is, if you’re talking about the greatest of all time, I’m going to have to do it for 10 more years.”

Ten more years and another 280-plus saves seems like a lofty goal. Not many last into their 40s — but then again, those who do are the true greats.

“Craig, you’re a bowl of concrete,” Moylan said. “You’re made out of something different. But goodness, 20 years of closing at 99 mph? Come on, dude. But I love the confidence.”

Perhaps that’s not going to happen. Still, it was just two years ago that many around baseball were wondering if Kimbrel’s career was over. At the time, he was viewed as a potential Hall of Famer, but his struggles seemed to have stalled his climb. Now, that discussion can resume.

“People have thrown that around,” Kimbrel said. “It can be tough sometimes because I don’t want that, I’m just out here doing my job. At the end of my career, hopefully that’s what people say.

“But I still got a long way to go, I still got a lot of games to pitch.”

(Photo: Norm Hall / Getty Images)

How Craig Kimbrel became one of the greatest closers of all time: 'The hitters never stood a chance' (2024)
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