Kimbrel coming up aces on mound, golf course
Braves closer one of the best in baseball, looks to repeat dominating '12 campaign
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- The talk of the Braves' clubhouse on Tuesday morning was not Chipper Jones' pending team Hall of Fame induction and jersey retirement. After all, that event, to be held June 28, was a foregone conclusion long before the club officially announced it.
No, the talk on Tuesday was about what Craig Kimbrel had done on ChampionsGate Golf Club the previous afternoon, during the charity tournament organized by Chipper and Tim Hudson. Kimbrel, a man known for making quick work of the ninth, used his four-iron to make quick work of the par-3 No. 2 hole on the National Course, striking the ball 203 yards into the wind and directly into the hole for his first-ever ace.
"I didn't even know it was a hole-in-one at first," a beaming Kimbrel said. "I thought it came up short and went into the sand."
Kimbrel is not generally accustomed to coming up short. Not after the last two seasons, anyway. He has blazed his way onto the short list of best closers in the game, and he just might have come out atop the list in a 2012 season that was downright historic. He was the first pitcher ever to strike out half the batters he faced (actually, 116 of 231), compiling the greatest strikeout rate (16.7 per nine innings) in history to go with the greatest average against (.126) in history, all while converting 42 of 45 save opportunities for the Braves.
Now, maybe it's too early to gauge the hole-in-one as some sort of omen from above that Kimbrel is in line to repeat that performance, but, you know, it can't possibly hurt.
In the meantime, his prize for this closest of "closest to the pin" measurements?
"A box of golf balls," he said proudly.
Wow. Who needs a retired jersey when you've got that?
Holes-in-one, of course, are more meaningfully celebrated by word of mouth than actual awards, and the same goes for what Kimbrel does for a living. After all, while Kimbrel was rightly recognized with antacid acclaim via the Rolaids Relief Man Award, he wasn't, as expected, given serious consideration for the Cy Young Award, even if a decent argument could have been made for him.
Closers, though, are more accurately assessed by the psychological effects they have on a game. And in the game today, there are few greater psychological effects than the one Kimbrel imposes on opposing batters in the late innings.
"Guys will get on base and sarcastically say to us, 'Oh man, can't wait to face Kimbrel in the ninth!'" second baseman Dan Uggla said. "We're like, 'Yeah, I know, bro. Good luck with that. Better you than me.'"
The Braves themselves aren't always immune to Kimbrel's clout, for in these early days of camp, it's teammate vs. teammate in the live batting practice sessions. And Kimbrel had a 10-minute session Monday that was simply silly, with only two batted balls escaping the cage.
Batting practice? Hardly.
"Pitching practice," is how manager Fredi Gonzalez more accurately described it.
For his part, Kimbrel downplayed the dominance.
"There were probably only about two balls they were even able to hit," he said with a laugh. "My curveball was all over the place."
Actually, location was indeed an issue for Kimbrel in his younger days. His walk rates of 22.8 at the High-A level in 2009, 15.2 at the Triple-A level in 2010 and 18.2 in his first exposure to the big leagues in '10 did not necessarily portend the kind of command we saw from him in 2012, when he walked just 6.1 percent of the batters he faced.
And the other interesting element of Kimbrel's maturation is his groundball rate. At 49 percent last season, it was a world away from the 28.1 mark in 21 appearances his rookie year.
What you have, then, is a guy who remains rather effective even those few times the opposition is able to make contact. And just to be clear, they didn't make contact much in '12. The 61.2-percent contact percentage off Kimbrel was the lowest in the game among pitchers with at least 50 innings. And credit to Gonzalez and Co. for more effectively managing their bullpen usage to ensure Kimbrel and elite setup men Jonny Venters and Eric O'Flaherty remained effective late in the season.
Now, the inherent flukiness and flakiness of relievers makes it impossible to project if this is a repeatable performance. But Kimbrel has two years' worth of track record to have earned some benefit of the doubt. For whatever it's worth, the numbers-crunchers who compile the PECOTA projections are affording Kimbrel more saves (45) and a higher strikeout-per-nine ratio (14.4) than anyone else in the game.
Kimbrel isn't expecting his World Baseball Classic participation with Team USA to impact his preparation for 2013 in any way, though it will prevent him from fiddling with the changeup he usually messes around with in the early days of camp before eventually discarding it.
"I'll throw it a bit on flat ground and stuff," he said, "but not in games."
No, in games, it'll still be strictly fastball-curveball. And Kimbrel has proven that to be plenty good enough. On a good Braves team that could be even better with the additions of the brothers Upton and a full season of Kris Medlen and Paul Maholm in the rotation, Kimbrel and his buddies in this bullish Braves bullpen (which could actually improve with the addition of right-handed setup man Jordan Walden) remain the most stabilizing force.
"That's one thing you've got to stay conscious of is not taking advantage of that," Uggla said. "You still want to keep your competitive edge up, because they have been so good the last two years and you don't want to take it for granted. But it is definitely a confidence-builder whenever they come into the game."
The 24-year-old Kimbrel is confident in his ability to be every bit as effective in 2013 as he was in '12. But he's not cocky and he's not complacent.
"You can't strike somebody out unless you have two strikes on them," he said. "You've got to get to that point first."
Kimbrel has ascended to the point where he owns the ninth in a way no one else does. And it will be interesting to see where the newest member of the hole-in-one club goes from here.
"If he does [what he did in '12] for a lot of years," Gonzalez said, "they're going to hang his number up there, too."