Thursday afternoon, the Braves beat the Giants 3-2. Tim Hudson was pretty good, but he couldn't go the distance, so as frequently happens, the Braves handed a narrow ninth-inning lead over to Craig Kimbrel. Kimbrel slammed the door by throwing eight pitches and eight strikes. He registered a strikeout and a weak grounder, and then Gregor Blanco bunted back to the mound because honestly why even bother attempting a regular at-bat? Kimbrel and David Ross celebrated the successful save. Kimbrel's strikeout rate went down.
I've been trying for a little while to think of the right way to write about Craig Kimbrel, and what he's been doing. Based on his performance, Kimbrel is someone who should be written about. More than that, Kimbrel is probably someone who should never not be written about. Any article that isn't about Craig Kimbrel is a missed opportunity to talk about Craig Kimbrel. Because are you aware of his performance? Holy crap!
I couldn't come up with the right angle. So instead of something flowery or creative, I present to you a chart. Or, as the headline states, a picture. A chart can be a picture. Just because you weren't expecting this to be about a chart doesn't mean I'm in the wrong. Indeed, you were the one with the wrong expectations. This chart very simply captures just about everything about Craig Kimbrel that blows my mind. I looked at his numbers. I couldn't believe them. Here are those numbers, in chart form:
Take a minute. Stare at the lines. Digest the lines. Look slightly to the right so you know what the lines mean. It's never entirely fair to just break a player down to some of his core statistics, because of course players are much more than that, but statistics are a reflection of performance and therefore of ability, and Craig Kimbrel's statistics hint at unimaginable ability.
Kimbrel faced just 88 batters as a rookie in 2010. He faced a few more in the first round of the playoffs. I remember looking at his numbers and thinking "wow, those are insane, even with the walks." Of those 88 batters, 40 struck out. Of them, 16 walked, although one of those walks was intentional.
Kimbrel's major-league starting point was amazing. Now look at the chart again. Craig Kimbrel has gotten better. So much better. We're dealing with reliever sample sizes here, so there's volatility in the data, but let's just look at what we have.
Kimbrel has cut his walks in half, and then some. How? He's thrown a lot more strikes. And a lot more first-pitch strikes as well. As a rookie, Kimbrel threw 58-percent strikes, and 43-percent first-pitch strikes. So far in 2012, he's thrown 70-percent strikes, and 71-percent first-pitch strikes. Do you know who throws 70-percent strikes? Cliff Lee. Cliff Lee throws seven out of every ten of his pitches for strikes. Cliff Lee and Craig Kimbrel.
I can't overstate how important it's been for Kimbrel to get ahead. It's not like he's vulnerable after throwing a first-pitch ball; after falling behind 1-and-0, Kimbrel's allowed a career .637 OPS. Jason Tyner posted a career .637 OPS. But after getting ahead 0-and-1, Kimbrel's allowed a career .272 OPS. Joe Blanton has posted a career .270 OPS. Craig Kimbrel has been getting ahead of batters more often, and when Craig Kimbrel is ahead of batters, he's a nightmare. He probably literally occupies the batters' nightmares, with them standing in the box in the World Series and Kimbrel just throwing this pitch over and over and over.
As a rookie, Kimbrel got into an 0-and-1 count 39 percent of the time. So far in 2012, he's gotten into an 0-and-1 count 64 percent of the time.
And then the groundballs. Kimbrel is also generating grounders now, at least when he allows a ball in play, which he doesn't do much of. Kimbrel's groundball rate this year is Jake Westbrook's career groundball rate. I don't know which of Craig Kimbrel's parents explained to him the notion of fairness, but that parent didn't do a very good job.
What's crazy is that chart above doesn't even capture all of it. Kimbrel's throwing harder now. His average fastball is up from 95.4 to 96.8. And here's what's probably my favorite stat: after Thursday, 2012 Craig Kimbrel has generated 19 three-pitch strikeouts. Stephen Strasburg has generated 19 three-pitch strikeouts. One time, when I was a kid, I was in the front yard and I heard some rustling in a bush by the driveway. A mouse ran away up the sidewalk, pursued closely by a cat, who caught up to the mouse and continued to play with it before going for the kill. Craig Kimbrel would've thought that cat was just wasting its time. Craig Kimbrel is the movie villain who doesn't divulge his master plan before shooting the hero in the face.
Craig Kimbrel began his major-league career by performing at an impossible level, and since then he's only improved. He got better in 2011, and he's gotten better again so far in 2012. He has thrown just 37 innings, but those are 37 of the best innings that anybody has thrown in the league. If you're at all familiar with xFIP, Kimbrel's xFIP is 1.10. Eric Gagne's 2003 xFIP was 1.18. In fact, if you add Kimbrel's xFIP to his FIP and to his ERA, you get 3.14. Madison Bumgarner has an ERA of 3.12. This helps illustrate a point that didn't need to be further illustrated.
Imagine an unbelievably effective relief pitcher. Really strain the limits of belief. Now take that pitcher's numbers and adjust them as if he were only ever facing the, and is out sick. Your mind has arrived at Craig Kimbrel. Try not to linger, because this can cause permanent damage.