One could argue that Craig Kimbrel is the second best reliever in MLB history, behind Mariano Rivera. He’s definitely in the discussion for top ten. Look at what he has done in his career already:
Craig Kimbrel career MLB ranks
(Minimum 500 innings)
ERA+ 211 1st
K% 41.6% 1st
WHIP 0.920 2nd
Opp BA .154 1st
If you’re unfamiliar with ERA+ that’s a statistic that takes ERA, adjusts for league and ballpark, and puts it on a scale where 100 is league average. Every point above or below 100 is equal to one point above or below league average. So 211 means 111% above league average, adjusting for ballpark.
Best career ERA+
(minimum 500 innings) ERA+ IP
Craig Kimbrel 211* 532.2
Mariano Rivera 205 1,283.2
Billy Wagner 187 903.0
Aroldis Chapman 186 502.1
Jonathan Papelbon 177 725.2
*Above is what pops up when you search the Baseball-Reference Play Index. Then you go to Kimbrel’s baseball-reference page and it says he has a 212 ERA+. Either way, it’s still number one.
He's the only pitcher in MLB history with at least 2 career saves with more saves (333) than hits allowed (285). He has an unreal ratio of 868 career strikeouts to 490 hits plus walks COMBINED.
On the top 10 list of lowest ERA in 40-save seasons, Kimbrel is the only pitcher with two seasons in the top 10
Lowest ERA in a season with at least 40 saves
Zack Britton 2016 47 0.54
Fernando Rodney 2012 48 0.60
Dennis Eckersley 1990 48 0.61
CRAIG KIMBREL 2012 42 1.01
John Smoltz 2003 45 1.12
José Mesa 1995 46 1.12
Eric Gagne 2003 55 1.20
Greg Holland 2013 47 1.21
CRAIG KIMBREL 2013 50 1.21
Armando Benítez 2004 47 1.29
In any event, that tells you what you need to know about what Craig Kimbrel has accomplished in his MLB career, which by the way, started in Philadelphia on May 7, 2010 – roughly 500 miles away from Cincinnati where Starlin Castro (triple, HR, 6 RBI) had quite an MLB debut of his own the same day. Another fun Cubs-related nugget about Kimbrel’s MLB Debut – he was caught by David Ross.
Anyway, Kimbrel has had an already legendary Major League career. 2011 NL Rookie of the Year, seven All-Star selections in nine seasons, four times leading the NL in saves. Only pitcher to reach 300 career saves before turning 30. Member of the World Series champion 2018 Red Sox (more on that in a bit).
However, it would be wise not to expect peak Kimbrel. He’s 30 years old and coming off a season where he posted a 4.57 ERA in 22 games (21.2 innings) after the All-Star break, walking an uncharacteristic 15 batters in those 21.2 frames. It continued in the postseason, with 9 hits and 8 walks in 10.2 innings. Plus, he’s coming off an extended layoff, and it will take some time to get back in playing shape.
The good news? The velocity has for the most part held up. He averaged 97.6 MPH on the fourseamer in 2018, down from a career-high 98.7 in 2017, but right in line of his best years of 2011-14. It’s possible his high walk rate in 2018 was a blip, especially since nestled in between high walk rates in 2016 and 2018 is a career-low in 2017.
Craig Kimbrel rates
2010-15 9.5% 41.2%
2016 13.5% 37.7%
2017 5.5% 49.6%
2018: 12.6% 38.9%
Yes, a 38.9% K rate is a bit of a dropoff from 2017. But:
- 2017 was the third best K% in MLB history (behind Aroldis Chapman’s 52.5% in 2014 and Kimbrel’s 50.2% in 2012)
- It is still good for one of the top 40 strikeout percentages in MLB history
- It was still FAR better than the 2018 league average for relievers (23.7%)
You can factor in a little bit of decline and he’ll still be one of the best handful of relievers in the game.
The better news? The Cubs’ decision to sign Kimbrel means they didn’t have to give away a draft pick or prospects to get an elite bullpen arm. He may not be the Kimbrel who posted a 1.01 ERA in 2012. He is still an elite reliever, and he automatically becomes the best reliever the Cubs have. Take a look at the slashlines he has allowed over the past five seasons:
Batters against Craig Kimbrel
Even in an “off” year in 2018, Kimbrel held opponents to something like what you’d see from a pitcher at the plate. He’ll assume higher leverage work in the Cubs bullpen, and allow everyone else to shift down a notch in the reliever pecking order, which is a big deal.
There was a need for relief help, Kimbrel was the best man available for the job, and the Cubs went out and got the deal done. If he doesn’t work out in Chicago, hey, it’s only money. No other assets were spent. Those assets are still available if they had to add another arm down the stretch. In all, even if he’s at 85-90% of what he was a few years ago, the move is a reason for optimism on the North Side.