Craig Kimbrel is really freakin’ good. While his blown save in the final game of the 2011 season gave him a bit more fame for the wrong reasons, Kimbrel has been downright tremendous in his young career. He has only gotten better this season, and at just 24 years old, still stands to improve a bit. Improvements beyond his current performance would make for one scary closer against whom almost nobody would reach base.
Kimbrel has now logged 126.2 innings in his career, and has the following marks: 1.71 ERA, 1.46 FIP, 15.3 K/9, 42.7% K/PA, 45.4% groundball rate. He has an 83.5% strand rate, a .157 opponents average and a 1.01 WHIP, even with a relatively high walk rate. But he’s getting better in that area as well, as his walk rate has decreased each year: from 18.2% to 10.5% down to his current 9.1% mark.
Whether we’re looking at the career numbers of all relievers in the history of baseball, or pitchers through their first three or four seasons, Kimbrel ranks ahead of everyone in most important categories. This is only his third season — and second full year — in the majors, but he is off to a historic start. It wouldn’t be out of line to suggest that, through three years and 120+ innings, Kimbrel has the best numbers of anyone ever.
Starting with a comparison of his young career to those of all other pitchers to log at least 120 innings, Kimbrel’s 1.71 ERA ranks 0.11 runs ahead of Ed Walsh on the leaderboard. Strictly looking at relievers, Kimbrel’s ERA is 0.20 runs better than Ernesto Frieri. Mariano Rivera, the gold standard, ranks third among relievers with a 2.05 ERA but falls further down the list due to a 5.51 ERA in a rookie season in which he made 10 starts. Kimbrel’s 1.46 FIP ranks almost a half-run ahead of second place Rube Waddell (1.92). Among relievers, the second spot belongs to Sergio Romo’s 2.27 career rate.
Using our contextual FIP- and ERA- numbers, Kimbrel still fares tremendously. His 38 FIP- is the best of all time using the 120+ innings cutoff, and far behind him in second place is Strasburg at 52. His ERA- of 45 also ranks at the top of the list, ahead of Mo’s 49.
Lastly, Kimbrel’s 42.7% K/PA is far and away the best rate of all time. Behind him on the list is Billy Wagner, who finished his career as Kimbrel’s mentor, and with a 33.2% strikeout rate. Only eight pitchers in major league history have a strikeout rate above 30%, and the seven non-Kimbrels all range from 30.9%-33.2%. Interestingly, but not totally surprisingly, six of those eight pitchers are still around (Kimbrel, Frieri, Romo, Stephen Strasburg, David Robertson and Brad Lidge). Wagner retired recently as well. The only other pitcher on that list is Rob Dibble. Even with strikeout rates up and more pitchers surpassing the 30% plateau these days, nobody is even close to Kimbrel.
However, comparing his short career to the full careers of other pitchers isn’t as telling as how he fares relative to others through their first three or four years in the league. Wagner and Lidge, for instance, may have started off similarly to Kimbrel before slowing down as their careers progressed.
Using the same 120 inning cutoff, and restricting the sample to pitchers in their first four seasons (to get at least three full seasons for guys who threw, say, 5.2 innings in their technical first season), Kimbrel still comes out on top. The top five non-Kimbrel strikeout rates through a pitcher’s first four seasons (120 IP minimum) are:
Strasburg is basically tied with Percival and both Robertson (31.1% from 2008-11) and Frieri (32.1% from 2009-12) aren’t far off the leaderboard.
But nobody in baseball history has gotten off to such a strikeout-happy start as Kimbrel. It remains to be seen how Aroldis Chapman factors into this equation, but as it currently stands, Kimbrel is pitching at a level of effectiveness through his first three seasons rivaled by next to nobody in the history of the game, and striking batters out at literally an unprecedented pace.