This making of a Braves closer is messy business. Every appearance for Craig Kimbrel is a tense cage match between victory and disaster. Each trip to the mound is a referendum on just how much a 22-year-old can be trusted to nail down the three most difficult outs in big boy ball.
But, in these early days of the process, Kimbrel has picked up one notable endorsement.
“He’s on my fantasy team,” declared Billy Wagner, who at the close of last season retired as a Brave while ranked fifth on the all-time saves list (422).
Back in rural Virginia, Wagner has followed his protege’s progress with optimism, while tending to his farm and coaching his two sons’ baseball teams.
If his words offer encouragement to those fans who cringe with doubt whenever Kimbrel gives up a game, as any closer will on occasion, then Wagner will not have wasted his breath.
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“He has gotten past those first couple saves. He’s having a great year, and he’s had a few bumps in the road. That shows me, if he blows a save, he can come back the next day and get the save. That is a big thing — how does he respond to the failures and how does he handle the successes? I think he’s doing well with that,” came the Wagner verdict.
Being a closer is not as easy as Kyra Sedgwick makes it look.
He has all the physical stuff to pull off this gig, that’s obvious to everyone around the Braves.
“When he goes out and he’s aggressive and he goes right at guys, it’s pretty simple: They’re not going to hit him,” said starter Tommy Hanson.
A star is born
A little background here on the origins of one filthy fastball.
The Kimbrel you see today closing games for the Braves bares little resemblance to the one who left high school just five years ago.
Well, facially, not that much has changed. Kimbrel’s apple-cheeked mug remains more suited for homecoming court than a major league bullpen.
Kimbrel the player, though, is an entirely different beast now. The kid just out of Huntsville, Ala., Lee High was nobody’s prodigy. As a shortstop, he was capable with a glove, and he knew which end of the bat to grip — and not all that much more. When he pitched, no radar guns quivered.
Alabama’s Wallace State Community College took him on as a project. “His velocity was OK for what we’re used to having [mid-80s] here,” said longtime Lions coach Randy Putnam. “The thing I liked about Craig is that he always competed. He never backed down. He seemed highly motivated.”
Then something wonderful happened.
Working a late summer construction job with his pops, Kimbrel dropped a stack of sheetrock on his foot. Mashed it good. And a scar, er, star was born.
Reporting to practice in the fall of 2006 with his foot in a cast, Kimbrel couldn’t put any weight on the injury and thus couldn’t throw like the other guys. So, he compensated, dropping to his knees and throwing entirely with his hips and upper body.
“It was amazing how far he could throw off his knees,” Putnam said.
The coach would look over to a neighboring soccer field and see his injured freshman throwing from one goal to the other, on a line. “And we had other guys who would have needed to throw it once, pick it up and throw it again to make it there,” Putnam laughed.
While Kimbrel figures he just began growing into his body around that time, the coach theorizes that he quickly built up lower back and arm strength with the quirky throwing regimen. Whatever the reasons, when the cast came off and Kimbrel got back on his feet, he had picked up another 5 mph on his fastball. By his sophomore season, he was up around 95, 96 mph. The coach had never witnessed such a velocity growth spurt.
Huge, sudden lurches in his development have been central to Kimbrel’s story ever since. This guy, like one of his fastballs, is on you before you know it.
He’s hard to hit
Last season, just two years after being taken in the draft’s third round, Kimbrel was making the first exploratory ventures from Gwinnett to Atlanta. This spring, as he and Jonny Venters auditioned for spots at the back end of the bullpen, Kimbrel was identified as the closer, Venters as his set-up man. The status was, and remains, fluid. Fredi Gonzalez can flip the roles as he sees fit.
Kimbrel’s stuff has an almost narcotic attraction to it, an irresistible quality that can stupefy.
Just ask the guy who has to catch it.
“He throws 96 [mph], and it looks 110,” said Brian McCann. “He comes right at you with the four-seam fastball. It’s hard to pick up as a catcher; I can only imagine trying to hit it. It shoots out, it seems like it comes right out of his shoulder.”
But can he harness that power for good?
By the end of last season, when the glare of attention was far less and when he still had Wagner on the premises as a mentor, Kimbrel was in a very good place. He had worked out some control issues that plagued him earlier in the year and was already so trusted that Bobby Cox tossed him into all four of the Division Series games against San Francisco.
“He showed what he was about in the playoffs — he was as good as anybody I’ve seen. I think that showed a lot to the team,” Wagner said.
He came out firing in 2011, picking up a save in the Braves’ opener, converting his first four save opportunities, striking out seven of the 13 hitters he faced in those games.
But it is never that uncomplicated. His first career blown save came on April 21 against the Dodgers, when he yielded a two-out, two-strike game-tying single. He blew a second save in four chances in St. Louis. Then took a loss to the Cards the following day.
More evidence on the extremes involved in living with a closer-in-training presented itself last week. He shut down the Phillies last weekend then blew a save Wednesday at Arizona after a potential game-ending double play ball ticked off his glove. Entering this weekend he was 11 for 15 in save opportunities.
Outwardly, Kimbrel has taken some significant steps to look the part of a closer.
For one, he has developed a menacing pre-pitch routine, in which he bends low and dangles his right arm, nearly brushing the mound with his fingertips, while looking in for the catcher’s sign. He says he began doing that only last year, in Triple-A, and that it serves no practical purpose.
“He probably spent a long time in front of the mirror thinking of that one,” McCann said.
“It looks cool to me,” Kimbrel said.
This year, he changed his intro song from a Shinedown number to the hard-hitting Guns N’ Roses standard, “Welcome to the Jungle.” It seemed a more closer-ly beat.
And Kimbrel has allowed his hair to be cut into a modified Mohawk by pitcher Kris Medlen. It’s a look that he thinks might make him look a little less callow, a little more mean.
Meanwhile, inwardly, Kimbrel has worked on developing the short memory and confident core that a closer comes to rely upon. The advice Wagner most poured into his ears last season concerned keeping his emotions on a low simmer. That way, he told the kid, you betray no uncertainty to the other dugout and boost belief in your own.
Kimbrel practices his laconic closer approach every time he describes his job: “I just go out there and pitch, that’s all I do. It just happens to be that [last] inning, in that role. There’s a little more pressure, but it still just getting three outs.”
It is also helpful if management takes a steady, measured approach.
“We know there are going to be some ups and downs. Hopefully, the ups are a lot longer than the downs,” Gonzalez said. “You just got to roll with it a little bit.”
Patience isn’t always the first reaction when a lead vanishes in the ninth. But the making of the closer, say those on the assembly line, demands just that. In liberal amounts.
As for Kimbrel’s prospects, specifically, we’ll let Wagner close, for old time’s sake:
“I don’t think his stuff needs to get any better. He needs to get more a feel for the hitters he’s facing and pick up little things as he goes along.
“He is, without a doubt, one of the best young closers coming into the game. Now with that expectation he has to know he still has a learning curve. Every guy who comes out there as a closer throws 95-plus with a good breaking ball. When he learns to really pitch to his strengths and to be instinctively confident, then he’ll be on his way. That takes a while.”
Meet Craig Kimbrel
Born: May 28, 1988
Marital status: Single
Hometown: Huntsville, Ala.
High school: Lee
College: Wallace State Community College (Hanceville, Ala.), 2007-08
Drafted: Picked in the third round (96th overall player) by the Braves in 2008. Had signed to play with Alabama. The Braves had taken him in the 33rd round the year before, but he opted to remain at Wallace State in order to improve his draft status.
Minor league totals (2008-09): 8-7 won-loss record; 51 saves; 1.85 ERA in 151 innings; 242 strikeouts; 95 walks.
2010 major league stats: 4-0 won-loss record; 1 save; 0.44 ERA in 20 2/3 innings; 40 strikeouts; 16 walks.
Factoid: Has yet to allow a major league home run in 42 career innings.