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Astounded by Craig Kimbrel

I am far too excited to watch Craig Kimbrel pitch next season. He’s a right-hander with high-end velocity – a 95 mph average fastball with rising action that can reach 98 – but nothing we don’t see from relievers with some frequency. He will be 23 years old and has only a meager 21 innings of MLB experience. Despite being moderately interesting on the surface, I didn’t think that I could possibly be more excited to watch him over relievers like Carlos Marmol, Aroldis Chapman, Brian Wilson, Neftali Feliz, Mariano Rivera, and more. But no, as we enter 2011, Craig Kimbrel is my most anticipated reliever of the year.

Since there was no closer controversy in Atlanta – Billy Wagner was excellent all season – one can be excused for forgetting that Kimbrel will be promoted to the closer’s role in Wagner’s absence. Given Kimbrel’s inconsistent appearances at the MLB level – never more than 11 IP in a month – one can also be excused for failing to remember his excellent regular season performance. In his 20.2 innings with the Braves, Kimbrel struck out 40 batters -17 K/9! – en route to a 0.44 ERA and a 1.53 FIP.

It’s less forgivable to overlook Kimbrel’s introduction to America outside of the southeast. Kimbrel put together a fantastic relief appearance on the national stage in Game 2 of the NLDS against the San Francisco Giants. Between the 8th and 9th innings of that game, Kimbrel racked up four strikeouts in preserving a 4-4 tie. His full arsenal of pitches was on display that night, and you can watch it here.

Between the eye-popping strikeout numbers and the impressive, whiff-inducing stuff, and the mystery of his inexperience, Kimbrel has everything a remarkable reliever needs. Throw in Kimbrel’s terrific minor league numbers – at least 12 K/9 every stop in the minors except for a two game stint in A+ – and there’s reason to believe that Kimbrel can post a legendary strikeout season on the level of Carlos Marmol’s 2010 (16.0 K/9). This kid should post incredible numbers and show the spectators some fireworks in the process. It’s only January, and he’s just a young closer on a team that won’t start playing for another four months, but I’m astounded by Craig Kimbrel.