In the 2010 NLDS, the Braves introduced the world to Craig Kimbrel. He had pitched 20⅓ innings in the regular season, but in the playoffs they were deploying him as a secret weapon. I was only vaguely aware that he existed, and he showed up in the eighth inning of Game 1. When he was warming up, he reminded me of a Kyle Farnsworth that was left in the dryer too long.
In his postseason debut, he struck out Buster Posey on an 87-m.p.h. changeup after a series of 98-m.p.h. fastballs. In Game 2, he struck out four batters in two innings of work, and at no point did a player on the San Francisco Giants look like they could make contact with a Kimbrel fastball. I'm not talking with just a swing, either -- I'm pretty sure they couldn't have bunted a Kimbrel fastball. They might not have even been able to let the ball hit their chest, Happy Gilmore-style if they wanted to. Craig Kimbrel might have been the most amazing pitcher I've ever seen on such short notice.
But there was the element of surprise to him, just like there was with Francisco Rodriguez in the 2002 postseason. He was an unknown with a crazy fastball and a deceptive delivery, but the more players saw him, the less the deception would matter. It made sense that when the league saw him a couple of teams. he wouldn't be quite as magical.
I was right. His K/9 cratered in 2011, dropping from 17.4 as a rookie to 14.8, which was good only for sixth-best ever. Maybe the Braves should be worried about him.
More hitters are striking out than ever before. This isn't a secret, nor is it a surprise. The now-defunct Baseball Reference blog had a great post on the rising strikeout rate, complete with a fancy and illuminating graph. Bobby Bonds was a freak when he struck out 189 times in 1970 -- when Ryan Howard does it now, no one really blinks. Well, except for Phillies fans, maybe. And by "blinks," I mean "throws things onto the field in fits of misplaced and hilariously stereotypical anger."
We're passed the point of evaluating hitters based on their strikeout totals. Teams don't really care about putting balls in play if a hitter does other things well, like get on base or hit for power. The stigma is gone. Swing free and live free, sluggers. If you pretend that you're Luis Castillo with two strikes, you'll probably just ground into a double play.
That's what baseball has become, so saying that Kimbrel has one of the best strikeout rates ever is a bit of a red herring. It doesn't mean that he's automatically one of the best pitchers of all time. But there's no reason to read too much into it. Kimbrel is, at a young age, one of the best pitchers in the history of baseball at making hitters swing and miss. The era has allowed for that, sure, but that just means that Kimbrel is in the right place at the right time -- he's almost the perfect relief pitcher in this high-strikeout era. If he can actually throw strikes with consistency at some point ... cripes.
Carlos Marmol still holds the K/9 record for a reliever, striking out 16 batters for every nine innings he threw in 2010. But when it came to strikeouts per batter faced, he had the same rate in 2010 as Kimbrel did in 2011. Also of note is that over Marmol's career, his strikeout rate in 2010 is an obvious outlier. It looks like Kimbrel might actually maintain this nonsense.
So give me Kimbrel as the pitcher that people will look at as a reliever to define the high-strikeout era for the next decade. He's taking over the title from Billy Wagner, a similarly freaky pitcher. It's only fitting that Kimbrel was the last reliever to ever enter a game ahead of Wagner. He took over Wagner's role the next season in a very literal and metaphorical way.