A bad break turns out to be pretty good for Braves' Kimbrel

Publish date:

Some 20 slabs of sheetrock, weighing roughly 800 pounds, were leaning against the kitchen wall of the house where Craig Kimbrel, then 18, and his dad, an electrician by trade, were running some wires.

A third worker reached for too big a share of the sheetrock and, Kimbrel recalled, "Before I knew it, they were falling on top of me." The injury was significant for Kimbrel, who was about to enter his first year as a pitcher for Wallace State junior college in his native Alabama. The sheetrock smashed the three metatarsals on Kimbrel's left foot, and the bone attached to his big toe was dislocated.

Unable to put weight on his foot, much less pitch, Kimbrel arrived at school and took to long tossing from his knees. Soon, he was able to cover the length of a football or soccer field.

"It's kind of weird to say that breaking your foot is the best thing that could happen to you, but it seems like it ended up working out that way," said Kimbrel, who is now the closer for the wild-card-leading Braves and a virtual lock to win NL Rookie of the Year honors. "It helped me understand how I move my upper body. Once I started using my lower body, it all came together."

The understanding and strengthening that came with Kimbrel's forced isolation of his upper body and lower body led to dramatically improved performance. Kimbrel, who played both baseball and football at Lee High in Hunstville, Ala., said he previously weight-trained only in summers and falls for football and would lose all that he gained during winters and springs; at Wallace State he trained year-round.

Altogether, these changes helped Kimbrel improve his fastball from the high 80s to the mid 90s. After his first year of junior college in 2007, the Braves selected him in the 33rd round, but he returned to school. After a second year, the Braves selected him in the third round of the 2008 draft. By 2009 Kimbrel was Atlanta's minor league pitcher of the year. In 2010 he made his major league debut, and in 2011 Kimbrel has become arguably the game's most dynamic closer, thanks to a fastball that averages 96 mph and a hard slider that's among the game's most effective breaking pitches, all at the age of 23.

That's not to say that Kimbrel is baseball's best closer, just that in spurts he has some of the game's filthiest stuff. There's no disputing that the Yankees' Mariano Rivera is the greatest of all-time or that the Tigers' Jose Valverde has had the more consistent season.

But of the 34 relievers with at least 10 saves, Kimbrel practically laps the field in strikeout rate -- his 14.77 per nine innings is roughly two strikeouts better than any other closer -- and ranks second in both ERA (1.78) and average against (.174), all while allowing just one homer (tied for the fewest) while having thrown the most innings (70 2/3).

Kimbrel has already set the rookie saves record, yet maintains that any of the Braves' three-headed relieving monster -- which also features lefthanded set-up men Jonny Venters and Eric O'Flaherty -- could handle the job.

"I feel like you can put us in a hat, mix it up and pick one of us," Kimbrel said, "and any one of us can throw the seventh, eighth and ninth. That's how strong our bullpen is."

He might be right, but for now the Braves have arranged their bullpen thusly when they have a lead: O'Flaherty pitches the seventh, Venters the eighth and Kimbrel the ninth. Atlanta is 60-8 when leading after six innings and 64-3 when leading after eight innings.

Before the season the Braves didn't anticipate using a singular closer. Manager Fredi Gonzalez said in the spring that Kimbrel and Venters would share duties. That never materialized. Kimbrel nailed the season's first four opportunities and held onto the job.

That said, it's not like pitching coach Roger McDowell has any aversion to a closing tandem. After all, he was a part of a very effective one. In the Mets' World Series title year of 1986, McDowell had 22 saves and Jesse Orosco had 21.

Entrusted with solo closer duty, Kimbrel has compiled one of the greatest seasons a rookie reliever has ever put together.

The previous rookie saves record was set just last year by the Rangers' Neftali Feliz, who converted 40 in 2010. But saves are only one helpful measure, given the unequal number of save opportunities each closer gets and the fact that few rookies even have the chance to close at all.

So while it'd be unusual for children across America to daydream about one day breaking the rookie saves record Kimbrel said he takes significant pride in the accomplishment.

"I feel like it's a special record," he said, "because there are not a lot of guys who have the opportunity [to close] in their rookie season."

From first place through 15th place on the rookies saves leaderboard, only three pitched before 1990 and only one, Boston's Dick Radatz in 1962, pitched before 1986.

Only 99 rookies in baseball history have more than 10 saves; only 27 have as many as 20 saves; only seven have reached 30; and only two, Kimbrel and Feliz, got to 40.

Among alltime rookie relievers with at least 50 innings pitched, only three combine an ERA under 2.00, a save conversion rate of at least 85 percent and a strikeout rate of at least one per inning: Jonathan Papelbon of the Red Sox in 2006, Andrew Bailey of the A's in 2009 and Kimbrel. Here's how those pitchers' rookie seasons compare:

The save total and prodigious strikeout rate set Kimbrel apart from the other two, though Papelbon's ERA is exactly half of Bailey's and almost half of Kimbrel's. That, combined with his superior strikeout-to-walk rate, probably gives Papelbon a slight edge for best season by a rookie closer, though it's extremely close.

Both McDowell and catcher Brian McCann point to last year's Braves closer, Billy Wagner, as the single most important influence on Kimbrel. Wagner had 37 saves last season and 422 for his career, and he freely shared his accumulated insights from 16 years in the big leagues.

Kimbrel said what was most helpful was learning from Wagner "how to watch games and look for things early in a game that will help you later on." For example, a hitter that's 0-for-3 to start the game is likely to be more aggressive than a hitter who's 3-for-3.

In Kimbrel's first eight appearances of major league duty, he had more walks (10) than innings pitched (8 1/3). By the time he was recalled at the end of the year, he threw 11 1/3 shutout innings in September while striking out 23 and walking only five.

Having a sounding board like Wagner and especially having the experience of pitching last year -- he threw 20 2/3 regular-season innings, allowing just one earned run, and pitched in all four of the Braves' postseason games -- propelled Kimbel into the position he's in now.

"That helped me a lot," he said. "If it weren't for that, I wouldn't be the closer."

And the Braves might not be in position for a return trip to the postseason.