When Craig Kimbrel Is Better Than Cliff Lee

Craig Kimbrel of the Atlanta Braves pitches in the ninth inning of the game against the Washington Nationals at Turner Field in Atlanta, Georgia. The Braves beat the Nationals 5-2. (Photo by Daniel Shirey/Getty Images)

Craig Kimbrel's scoreless streak is now the longest of the season, and it's been one of the most impressive stretches in recent memory.

Two scoreless inning streaks were started on June 11. The shorter of the two began in the fourth inning of a game against the Cubs, after Cliff Lee gave up a long single by Darwin Barney that scored Starlin Castro. For the next 34 innings, Lee was nigh untouchable: he struck out just 21 batters over the 34 scoreless innings but showed his customary control, walking just five batters in those innings. Once the calendar turned to July, he gave up six earned runs -- five more than he had allowed in all of June -- in one start to the Blue Jays, halting his streak. 

The other streak is ongoing, but has not been as widely reported due to the pitcher's role.

Craig Kimbrel is a closer, and therefore can't throw consecutive shutouts like Lee can. Reliever scoreless streaks sneak up on you, and Kimbrel, after Thursday night's appearance against the Nationals, has now thrown 34-2/3 straight scoreless frames -- not only more than Lee, but in a more impressive fashion, too.

While Lee got the job done by keeping runners off base and not allowing the ones who made it to score, Kimbrel has found that striking out just under half of all opponents is the key to putting zeroes on the scoreboard. During his scoreless streak -- the longest of any pitcher this season -- Kimbrel has struck out 62 hitters out of 126 faced, walked just 10, and given up 13 hits. 

Kimbrel has struck out as many batters in his last nine innings as Lee did during his entire streak. While it isn't during one game, that's still 21 strikeouts over nine consecutive innings, giving him that elusive extra K that Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, and Kerry Wood all failed to register in their 20-K starts. Unlike those three, though, Kimbrel whiffs hitters at a pace close to that all the time -- he's struck out 15.5 per nine in his short career

He is now whiffing 14.9 batters per nine innings this season, the fifth-highest rate all-time for a pitcher with as many innings as he's thrown this year (66). He's up there with some of relief's greatest names: Eric Gagne, Billy Wagner, Brad Lidge, and, as far as strikeouts are concerned, Carlos Marmol, who has the all-time record for his 2010 season with 15.99 strikeouts per nine. Kimbrel, during the scoreless streak, has punched out 16.01 hitters per nine. 

Lee's streak, in terms of how he got there, was very comparable to Orel Hershiser's record setting 59-1/3 stretch. Hershiser struck out 5.8 batters per nine and walked just 1.7, but he kept that going for nearly twice as long as Lee did and Kimbrel has. In addition, Hershiser didn't allow a run in the playoffs for 7-1/3 innings, either, meaning the streak is really 67 innings. That's just a reminder that, no matter how ridiculously good Kimbrel has been since June 11, he still has a long way to go to reach the lengthiest scoreless streak in history. In Kimbrel's defense, of course, his run at it has been a lot sexier for those who dig whiffs and velocity. Sorry, Bulldog.

In the long run, though, what matters is that Kimbrel has been flat-out incredible in his time in the majors, a fact punctuated by the zeroes he's throwing up. His ERA was 3.38 following his June 11 appearance, and has now fallen all the way to 1.62, putting him in the top 15 all-time for pitchers with his inning total, as well as the top 25 in ERA+ under the same guidelines. 

He'll get a chance to show off on the national stage, assuming the Braves make the playoffs, in less than a month. It's unlikely that his scoring streak would still be intact by then, but that's secondary: one of the game's most exciting pitchers will be doing his thing, possibly even starting a brand new scoreless streak, while receiving the recognition that he has already earned.

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