By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Over the years here in Boston, we’ve seen quite a few exceptional athletes pass in front of our eyes. Even in the past, say, 10 to 15 years, a number of current or future Hall of Famers have called Boston home. It’s a list that includes quite a few familiar names: Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Randy Moss and Adam Vinatieri with the Patriots; Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen with the Celtics; Patrice Bergeron and Zdeno Chara with the Bruins; and David Ortiz, Pedro Martinez, and in an up-and-coming sort of way, Mookie Betts with the Red Sox.
One person who isn’t quite thought of in the same light as those all-timers is the Red Sox’ current closer, Craig Kimbrel. But it’s high time that the 30-year-old starts to be regarded as a rare, all-time great at his position.
That may seem like hyperbole, but it’s not. While some others have flashed this decade, Kimbrel has been the most consistently dominant closer in baseball since his first full season back in 2011. That was cemented on Sunday night when Kimbrel was officially announced as an American League All-Star. It marked Kimbrel’s seventh All-Star selection in the last eight seasons, and his third straight season making the AL squad as a member of the Red Sox.
Kimbrel may not be as universally loved and celebrated the way that a character like Jonathan Papelbon was for a stretch. He may have not yet accomplished what Keith Foulke was able to do. And he may not have a season exactly as bright as Koji Uehara’s 2013 campaign. But Kimbrel is nevertheless well on his way toward becoming the rare relief pitcher who deserves enshrinement in the Hall of Fame.
Maybe that’s surprising to hear, maybe it’s not. (It shouldn’t be, though. A charming gentleman began covering this trend last summer.) But leaving feelings and opinions out of the equation, the numbers do not lie.
Kimbrel picked up his 27th save of the season and the 318th save of his career on Sunday afternoon. Despite being a member of the Red Sox for just two-and-a-half seasons, he’s already tied for fourth on the franchise’s all-time list of saves. Barring injury, he’ll pass Dick Radatz and move into third all time by the end of the summer. (He’s already the all-time leader in saves for the Braves franchise by a wide margin.)
But saves are only part of the equation. Here are Kimbrel’s career stats through 516 appearances for Atlanta, San Diego and Boston:
CRAIG KIMBREL (2010-present)
7 All-Star Games
Now, you can compare those numbers to the closers who have made the Hall of Fame through roughly the same number of appearances. We can also include Mariano Rivera, who is of course a lock to make the Hall when he becomes eligible next year. There are currently six closers who have earned induction into the Hall of Fame, but Dennis Eckersley won’t be considered in this experiment, as 361 of his first 490 appearances came as a starting pitcher. (Likewise, John Smoltz is excluded, obviously.) Any other pitchers in this list who started games will have their number of starts notated in parentheses.
Working backwards in time, here’s a look at Hall of Fame closer’s stats through roughly 500 appearances. (For the purpose of this exercise, whole seasons were used. So we’re not looking at numbers through exactly 516 appearances, but it’s more than enough to give you a good idea of where each pitcher was at when they had a similar amount of big league experience.)
MARIANO RIVERA (1995-2003)
512 appearances (10 games started)
5 All-Star Games
TREVOR HOFFMAN (1993-2000)
3 All-Star Games
BRUCE SUTTER (1976-1983)
5 All-Star Games
GOOSE GOSSAGE (1972-82)
511 appearances (37 starts)
7 All-Star Games
ROLLIE FINGERS (1968-1976)
502 appearances (37 starts)
4 All-Star Games
HOYT WILHELM (1952-61)
524 appearances (49 starts)
83 saves (*retroactively tallied)
3 All-Star Games
Again, save for Eckersley, that’s the entire crop of full-time relief pitchers either in the Hall of Fame or soon to be in the Hall of Fame. It is a tiny, exclusive list. And yet, among the seven pitchers discussed thus far, here’s where Kimbrel ranks in various categories through roughly 500 career appearances:
All-Star Appearances: Tied-1st
You look at those key areas, and you can actually say that not only is Kimbrel as good as some of the Hall of Fame relievers — he’s arguably better than all of them.
Of course, you can always throw in some qualifiers. Strikeout rates are obviously much higher now than ever before. Even with that, though, Kimbrel’s strikeout rate of 14.7 K/9 is so significantly better than anyone else on the list that it renders that discrepancy almost meaningless. Hoffman’s second best, at 10.3, followed by Rivera at 8.1.
You could also point out that the closer position was not exactly the same in the ’70s and ’80s (and certainly not the ’50s) as it is in the modern era. That’s why Kimbrel’s only pitched about two-thirds as many innings as Sutter, despite making 38 fewer appearances.
The point here is not to say that Kimbrel is definitely better or worse than the best relievers of the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. There are too many variables to even try to make that case.
But simply, the point is to show that if Kimbrel can remain healthy and can keep up a pace somewhat close to what he’s done in his first nine seasons, then he will leave voters with no choice but to elect him to Cooperstown.
He is currently tied for 21st on the all-time list of saves, and if he records 13 more this season, he’ll finish the year at 14th. He’ll be a free agent next winter, poised to make some serious cash, and as it stands now, he’ll need just 161 more saves to move up to third on the all-time list. At his current pace of about 37 saves per year since 2015, he’ll reach No. 3 on the all-time list during the summer of 2022.
It would be quite a feat if Kimbrel were able to step into the realm of Hoffman (601) saves or Rivera (652 saves). But it’s not impossible; pitching through age 40 while recording 37 saves per year would have him passing Hoffman in 2026 at age 38 and then passing Rivera in 2027 at age 39. Getting there, though, would require a remarkable career of great health, which should never be assumed of any athlete.
Save for the 41-year-old Fernando Rodney, who has one more career save than Kimbrel at the moment, no current active player is anywhere close to Kimbrel on that list. And nobody will be for a very long time. (Roberto Osuna, with 104 saves at age 23, stands the best chance. But he’s got a long, long way to go.)
It’s worth noting that if/when Kimbrel jumps to No. 3 on the all-time list, he’ll be passing Lee Smith, who is not in the Hall of Fame. And along the way, he’ll pass Francisco Rodriguez, John Franco, Billy Wagner, Joe Nathan, Papelbon, Jeff Reardon, Troy Percival, and Randy Myers, none of whom are Hall of Famers.
But as evidenced by the overall numbers, Kimbrel is much more than just a compiler of saves. His sub-2.00 ERA, his sub-1.000 WHIP and his absurd strikeout rate spotlight just how dominant the righty has been. And even if he sees an uptick in those numbers — which he almost certainly will in his 30s — his overall body of work should leave him on par or better than the other full-time relievers who have earned enshrinement to Cooperstown.
All Kimbrel needs to do is stay healthy for at least four more seasons, pitch close to as well as he’s always pitched, and he’ll become a no-doubt-about-it Hall of Famer.
Aside from the lumberjack beard and the unique stance, Kimbrel is a bit of an unassuming guy. He doesn’t say much to draw attention to himself, he doesn’t have any fiery custom celebrations, and his relatively calm composure doesn’t lend itself to drawing too much national hype from fans or media. But the numbers are what the numbers are, and they’re making an overwhelming case that cannot be denied. Barring unforeseen disaster or unexpected early retirement, Craig Kimbrel is a Hall of Famer.