Craig Kimbrel is one of the best closers in baseball and maybe even a potential Hall of Fame candidate down the line — and he’s never pitched better than he’s pitching right now.
To say the Boston Red Sox closer has been lights out this season would be an understatement. The hard-throwing right-hander picked up his league-leading 17th save Tuesday night in the Bronx, striking out five of the six batters he faced to close the door on the New York Yankees and help the Red Sox inch closer to first place in the American League East. He did, however, allow an inherited runner to score for the first time all season — on a strikeout.
Not only is it rare for Kimbrel to give up a hit — he’s given up just eight hits in 26 2/3 innings — but he also allows balls in play once in a blue moon. Of the 80 outs Kimbrel’s induced this season, 53 of them — just about two-thirds — are by way of the K.
Kimbrel is striking out nearly 18 batters per nine innings, which is nearly two more than the second-closest pitcher (Milwaukee Brewers closer Corey Knebel) among pitchers who have logged more than 20 innings so far this season. No one in that group has gotten more swings-and-misses than Kimbrel, who is getting whiffs on 22 percent of his pitches.
And even if you’re one of the lucky few able to put the ball in play against Kimbrel (make sure you save the ball), you’re still not likely to reach base. Opposing hitters have a .089 batting average against Kimbrel — second-lowest in the majors — and are hitting just .194 on balls in play, which honestly seems high.
The advanced stats, unsurprisingly, are also kind to Kimbrel. His FIP (fielding independent pitching) is 0.25 so far this season. If Kimbrel was somehow able to keep that up for the entire season (probably not going to happen), it would easily be the lowest FIP for any pitcher with at least 60 innings since 1871. Oh, and he’d be breaking his own record, too — he posted a 0.78 FIP in 2012.
And for reference, here’s what most pitchers’ FIP looks like:
Wait, hold on — let’s fix that real quick.
What’s made Kimbrel’s performance most impressive this season, though, is how he’s been able to dominate in relatively unfamiliar situations. He’s already thrown more than an inning in five of his 25 appearances, after doing so just one time through this point of the 2016 season and just five times all campaign.
Red Sox manager John Farrell also has called on Kimbrel earlier in games than in the past. He’s abandoned the traditional “closers pitch the ninth inning” mantra, instead using Kimbrel when the situation dictated. Kimbrel has appeared in the eighth inning on five occasions, logging 6 1/3 innings (counting the times he pitched into the ninth) and has 17 strikeouts. The Red Sox, unsurprisingly, are 5-0 in those games.
Oh, and short rest hasn’t been an issue, either. Kimbrel’s actually been better in the second half of back-to-back appearances. He’s had six outings with no days of rest and has yet to allow a hit with 12 strikeouts in six innings. Pretty decent.
And he’s done all of this as Boston works to piece together the back of its bullpen. The Red Sox have to hope they get Carson Smith and Tyler Thornburg back relatively soon to alleviate some of Kimbrel’s workload, but the veteran closer has done yeoman’s work in picking up the slack in their absences.
One could argue Kimbrel has been the Red Sox’s most important players through the first two months of the season, and it’s also getting harder and harder to debate that this is the best he’s ever pitched.
Thumbnail photo via Adam Hunger/USA TODAY Sports Images