The Braves drafted Craig Kimbrel out of Wallace State Junior College, with the 96th pick overall pick, in the third round of the 2008 MLB Amateur June Draft. Hailing from Rangers southpaw Derek Holland’s alma meter, Kimbrel has needed less than three seasons to develop in to the Minor League’s best reliever. After he compiled a 1.85 ERA, 51 saves and a 14.4 K/9 rate in 151 career minor league innings, Kimbrel made his big league debut last season on May 7, pitching a scoreless inning against the Phillies. From there, the twenty-two-year-old has continued to impress and he’s set to open the season in the Brave’s bullpen, splitting closer duties with Johnny Venters.
Strengths: (Four-Seam Fastball, Slider, Two-Seam Fastball, Polish)
Standing at about 5’11” and weighing in around 190 pounds, Kimbrel profiles well as a bulldog, power-reliever. His primary offering is his 92-94 mph sinking two-seamer. He uses his two-seamer to jam righties low-and-inside, and he’s becoming adept at keeping his pitches on the edges of the strikezone. His go-to secondary offering is his mid 80s Jeff Nelson-esc slider, which he uses as a chase pitch, racking up strikeouts low-and-away from righties. Both pitches push 70 grades on the 20-80 scouting scale, and his slider has the chance to be one of the best in the National League.
While Kimbrel’s one-two punch against righties, consisting of his two-seamer low-and-in followed by his slider-low-and-away, is already a devastating knockout combination, his strengths don’t end here. While his sinking fastball has developed into his primary offering, Kimbrel will also mix in a 95-97 mph rising four-seamer and even a solid changeup, against left-handed batters and contact hitters. Particularly in his major league debut, Kimbrel has shown comfort and feel for pitching almost exclusively off of his power four-seamer when facing southpaw batters, and can succeed when his slider and two-seamer aren’t at their best.
Kimbrel’s command and pitching IQ are improving, and his (already) rock-solid nerve makes him an ideal fit as Billy Wagner’s heir in Atlanta’s bullpen. Last season, at just twenty-one years old, Kimbrel showed the poise needed to pitch in the late innings of a big league game. Not only did he dazzle with his eye-popping numbers– forty strikeouts and .44 ERA through his first twenty MLB innings– he continued his success into the postseason, posting a 2.08 ERA and a 14.5 K/9 rate in four fearless appearances. He pitched surprisingly well in high-stress situations, limiting opposing batters to a .067 batting average with men on base.
Weaknesses: (Command, Stamina/Efficiency, Increasing Fly Ball Rates)
Though his command has gradually improved since his big league debut last May, Kimbrel isn’t an efficient pitcher and he rarely needs less than 16-20 pitches to get out of an inning. While his high pitch counts are an indicator of his nasty arsenal, all of his pitches have immense movement– making it difficult for Kimbrel to hit his spots and avoid walks against more seasoned, patient hitters. His fastball command is major league average, but his short stature can cause his four-seamer to flatten out when he throws it in the strikezone, to his arm side–giving opposing batters the opportunity to loft it into the gaps. His groundball rates shrunk considerably following his promotion to Atlanta, while his walk rate increased, indicating his control still needs more work.
Inning-at-time relievers don’t need the stamina starting pitchers need, but Kimbrel’s poor efficiency and elbow-racking repertoire could begin to wear his arm down throughout a long big league season. His squat build and strong grip provide power and movement to his pitches, but his high-effort delivery puts serious stress on his elbow and shoulder. He throws his hard-slider—a pitch notorious for causing elbow injuries— almost a third of the time and he could be an injury risk moving forward.
Summary: Kimbrel’s build, delivery and nasty fastball-slider combo garners comparisons to former teammate Billy Wagner. While Kimbrel is right handed (and Wagner was a southpaw) he has a good chance to develop in to a formidable closer similar to Billy the Kid. Even if his command and pitch efficiency do keep him from reaching his ceiling, he has all of the ingredients needed to be a closer similar to Huston Street.