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The Strike Zone

Braves' Craig Kimbrel continues to rack up saves at record-setting pace

Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images Now the all-time Braves saves leader, Craig Kimbrel's numbers are on pace for greatness. (Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images)

On Friday night, Craig Kimbrel made history for the Atlanta Braves by collecting the 155th save of his major league career, breaking the franchise record of 154 set by John Smoltz. That save didn't exactly vault him up the league's all-time leaderboard — he's currently tied with Jay Howell for 73rd in MLB history and is 16 behind Brian Wilson among active pitchers. Nonetheless, the speed with which Kimbrel has accumulated those saves has him on a record-setting pace that could see him challenge the sport's greatest closers.

With his 1 1/3-inning save against Arizona, the 26-year-old Kimbrel now has 155 saves in 254 career games; for comparison, it took Mariano Rivera, the game's all-time saves leader with 652, 311 career games to notch save 155, which came on Aug. 18, 2000, in his sixth season with the Yankees. Among the top-five in career saves, not one reached 155 saves as quickly as Kimbrel has, or even in under 300 games:

NameCareer SavesGames to 155 SavesDateAge
Mariano Rivera652311Aug. 18, 200030
Trevor Hoffman601335June 14, 199830
Lee Smith478410May 11, 198729
John Franco424402May 8, 199029
Billy Wagner422339June 4, 200230

In fairness to that quintet, Kimbrel's had a bit of a leg up on them time-wise, as he became Atlanta's full-time closer in his second professional season after only 21 games and at just 23 years old. Rivera didn't become New York's closer until his third season, by which point he'd already appeared in 80 career games. Hoffman became the Padres' full-time closer in 1994 after appearing in 67 games his rookie season split between Florida and San Diego, then lost the final month-plus of the season due to the players' strike. Smith and Franco both spent a couple of seasons setting up before becoming closers. In terms of career paths, Kimbrel's most closely follows Wagner's, as he became the Astros' regular closer in his second season. Wagner, however, lost the majority of the 2000 season to an arm injury, which limited him to nine saves that year.

Kimbrel's pace isn't just beating the historically great closers, however. He's also ahead of the pace set by the five active leaders in saves:

NameCareer SavesGames to 155 SavesDateAge
Joe Nathan354301July 25, 200631
Francisco Rodriguez322343April 24, 200826
Jonathan Papelbon299276Apr. 23, 201029
Jose Valverde288358Aug. 3, 200931
Huston Street252363Apr. 13, 201127

It's worth noting that, before Kimbrel, Papelbon had been the fastest pitcher to 155 saves in a career (and is now just one away from 300, to boot). In fact, Kimbrel and Papelbon are two of only eight pitchers all-time to reach 155 saves before their 300th game:

NameGames to 155 SavesDateAge
Craig Kimbrel254June 6, 201426
Jonathan Papelbon276Apr. 23, 201029
Bryan Harvey288July 25, 199330
Bobby Jenks288May 11, 201130
Eric Gagne289May 29, 200529
Brian Wilson290June 23, 201129
Joakim Soria291Aug. 23, 201127
Bobby Thigpen293May 17, 199127

While acknowledging that 155 saves is somewhat of an arbitrary benchmark, it's still a lot of saves to pile up in such little time. At 26, Kimbrel is the youngest to the mark, just beating out Thigpen and Soria, and so far, Kimbrel is the only pitcher to record 155 saves in five or fewer seasons. In short: He has had time on his side in accumulating those saves, and he has time on his side when it comes to getting more of them.

That said, just because he's already banked 155 saves doesn't mean that the next 500, or even the next 50, are going to come easy or even at all. Looking back at that list of eight pitchers, only Papelbon and Thigpen hung around long enough to break the 200-save mark plateau. Thigpen just barely made it there, finishing with 201 career saves in nine seasons; after picking up that 155th save in 1991, he recorded only another 46 over the next three years before retiring after the 1994 season. Wilson and Soria, while still active, each lost a year-plus to Tommy John surgery; Soria is closing once again, but Wilson has moved into a setup role, perhaps permanently. Arm injuries were also what cut short the careers of Gagne, Jenks and Harvey.

Then there's the sad specter of Billy Koch. He is one of six pitchers all-time to record 140 or more saves through their first five seasons — joining Kimbrel, Papelbon, Soria, Thigpen and Jenks — and by the end of his fourth season, Koch had accumulated 144 saves, more than any other pitcher in history through their first four years. But control problems and injury issues derailed Koch during that fifth season, when he saved just 11 games for the White Sox in 2003. By the end of 2004, he was out of baseball entirely.

Given his age and the fast start he's already gotten, Kimbrel stands a good chance of quickly climbing the all-time saves leaderboard, and maybe even of challenging Rivera and Hoffman at the top. Then again, one could have said that about any of the likes of Gagne, Koch, Thigpen or dozens of other big-armed closers who started out strong, only to see their careers fall apart in a short time. In the end, what a closer needs more than anything is injury luck and longevity. After all, Rivera may not have racked up saves early on, but his durability allowed him to pitch for 19 seasons. Slow and steady won the race for Rivera; hopefully for Kimbrel, he can avoid the injury bug that took so many challengers out of that race before him.
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