At the young age of 24, Craig Kimbrel has already cemented his status as one of the elite closers in all of baseball—perhaps even the best.
In this season, his second full year in the big leagues, the former third round pick has put together a remarkable campaign, evolving into a legitimate Cy Young candidate despite his role as a reliever.
With 42 saves and a 1.02 ERA, Kimbrel has been among the Braves’ most valuable players and among the most fascinating figures in the game today. Despite being somewhat of an underdog for the Cy Young Award, the mere fact that he’s in the conversation proves just how good he’s been.
But Kimbrel’s season has been more than just Cy Young-worthy—it’s been historic.
His 16.5 strikeouts per nine innings ratio is currently the best K/9 ratio ever recorded by a Major League pitcher. His .123 batting average-against is the lowest figure among MLB pitchers since 1900, and no National League reliever has had a lower WHIP (0.649) in that time as well.
Additionally, he’s struck out 49.5 percent of batters faced (the highest percentage in the live ball era), and has the best strikeout to walk ratio (4.2) of all time.
So where does Kimbrel’s season rank, historically?
Let’s start with the two most recent closers to win Cy Young Awards: Dennis Eckersley (1992) and Eric Gagne (2003).
Eckersley had 51 saves in ’92, along with a 1.91 ERA and a 0.913 WHIP. These numbers were good not only for the Cy Young, but for an All Star bid and AL MVP honors as well.
Gagne amassed 55 saves in 55 chances in ’03, eventually setting consecutive saves record with 84 in a row. His WHIP that season was incredible (0.692), but not quite as low as Kimbrel’s; neither was his ERA (1.20). And while Gagne was perfect in save opportunities in ’03, he did get tagged for 3 losses. Kimbrel has lost only 1 game this season.
Despite posting a lower number of saves than Eckersley and Gagne did in their best seasons, the rest of Kimbrel’s stats in 2012 look better than the former Cy Young winners. Given that saves are based largely on opportunities presented to each pitcher and that the other stats are more closely tied to individual performance, it’s safe to say that Kimbrel has had a more statistically dominant season than Gagne and Eckersley had in their best years.
Another standout season belongs to former Angel Fransisco Rodriguez, who broke the record for most saves in a year with 62 in 2008. However, despite the record, the rest of K-Rod’s stats don’t stand up to Kimbrel’s. The Venezuela native posted a 2.24 ERA that season along with a 1.288 WHIP and a .216 average against, all far inferior to Kimbrel’s marks.
No closer conversation would be complete without Mariano Rivera, who may in fact be the best at that position in the history of the game.
Rivera’s best statistical season goes somewhat overlooked, as it was his ninth highest save total in his illustrious career. That year, 2008, was when he had his lowest career WHIP (0.665) and second lowest ERA (1.40). Additionally, his strikeout to walk ratio that year was by far the best in his 18 seasons at 12.83.
Still, those WHIP, ERA and K/9 numbers pale in comparison to Kimbrel’s.
So even though Kimbrel’s save total may not be historically noteworthy, it’s definitely possible to make a case that his 2012 campaign has been the best ever by a closer.
We could compare Kimbrel to a number of other closers—namely guys like Trevor Hoffman, Goose Gossage, and Hoyt Wilheim—but given the fact that the Braves’ superstar sits at No. 1 in so many single season categories, those comparisons are unnecessary.
While it’s difficult to make a definitive case for who has had the best season as a closer of all time, it’s clear that Kimbrel’s 2012 effort has been among the very best. And with a long career ahead of him, this may only be the beginning.
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Andrew Hirsh is a freelance sportswriter. Follow him on Twitter: @andrewhirsh