It wouldn’t be accurate to say that Craig Kimbrel is a rich man, now. But he’s basically guaranteed to become a rich man, soon, and then soon after that, he’ll be richer. His new contract with the Braves is a fascinating one, for reasons…Dave…has probably already illustrated, or probably will soon illustrate. The Braves have made a major commitment to an incredible and seemingly risky reliever, and in so doing they’ve avoided having to take this year-to-year. Kimbrel was in line to set some arbitration records.
For the Braves, and for analysis, what’s most important is what’s likely to happen with Kimbrel down the road. Contracts are forward-looking, and what’s already happened only matters in that it can help one determine a fraction of the future. People want to know what Kimbrel’s likely to be at 26, what he’s likely to be at 30. So much of our time here is spent looking ahead, and that is how it ought to be, but every so often it’s worth acknowledging the past. Worth acknowledging remarkable things that might originally have escaped notice. See, there’s this one thing Craig Kimbrel did.
Kimbrel’s whole thing is avoiding contact. You already know that he went a whole season striking out literally half of the batters he faced. Last year, his strikeout rate was 38%. This represented a decrease, with Kimbrel losing a quarter of his rate from the previous year. Viewed a slightly different way, Kimbrel’s whole thing is avoiding balls hit into play. Since 2010, when Kimbrel debuted, 487 pitchers have thrown at least 100 innings. Kimbrel ranks second-best in in-play rate — 17.0% of his strikes have been put in play. The only guy ahead of him is Aroldis Chapman, at 16.6%. Against Kimbrel, it’s hard to make the bat meet the ball. It’s even harder to also then make the ball go somewhere between the white lines.
Using PITCHf/x, I wanted to track down Kimbrel’s longest career streak of strikes without a ball in play. Not necessarily strikes in a row — I’d allow the presence of balls. This seemed like a decent way to celebrate what Kimbrel’s already been in his earliest years. I found a streak of 28 strikes, in 2010. That’s 28 strikes without a single grounder or liner or fly. He didn’t have a streak close to that long in 2011. In 2012, I stumbled across another Kimbrel streak of 28 strikes. At that point, I thought I’d be writing about a tie. But as it turns out, no! This past season, Craig Kimbrel beat his own streak of 28 strikes without a ball in play. His new personal record isn’t 29, or 30. It’s 41. Craig Kimbrel beat his streak with a streak and a half.
On July 11, 2013, Kimbrel closed out a save by getting Zack Cozart to fly out. That would be it for balls in play for some time. Nothing doing, on July 13. Nothing doing, on July 19. The streak ended with the last batter on July 22. It all spanned 41 strikes, 67 pitches, and a dozen plate appearances. I’m not sure if it was the longest streak of the season, for all of major-league baseball, but I do have a hunch.
If you’re looking for some more stats, 16 of the strikes were called. Another 19 were fouled off. One went in the books as a foul tip, and five were officially swinging strikes. Of all those strikes, 30 were fastballs, and 11 were breaking balls. Here’s a graph, with a strike-zone approximation:
You notice that pretty much all the strikes were in or near the zone. Kimbrel didn’t spend a lot of this time getting batters to chase. Rather, he was unhittable while also being aggressive, which is the hallmark of a terrifying pitcher to have to stand in against. Against a guy like Kimbrel, you don’t fear for your life, but you do fear for your dignity. So maybe “terrifying” isn’t the right word, but it’s a different sort of unpleasant from standing in against Jesus Colome.
Here’s how it all got started, with Todd Frazier:
That’s Kimbrel’s first pitch of the top of the ninth on July 13. Frazier nearly fouled out, but Freddie Freeman ran out of room in pursuit. The next pitch was a similar fastball for a called strike two. The next pitch was a curveball down the middle for a knee-buckling called strike three. Frazier swung at the first pitch over the plate. He watched the next two pitches over the plate. In his defense, it’s a lot of fun to watch Craig Kimbrel.
Cozart followed Frazier, and when he wound up in a two-strike count, he attempted a different approach — he tried to befriend Kimbrel from the batter’s box, with a nervous but winning smile.
Perhaps Kimbrel would take it easy on him, as a friend?
They’re not close friends.
There’s not a whole lot to report, really, on how the streak played out. Chip Caray did have this to say shortly after Cozart’s strikeout:
We talked earlier about the Braves’ bats and this ballpark being Swing-town today, with Kimbrel it’s been Swing-and-a-miss-town.
When Caray said that, Kimbrel had yet to register a single swing-and-miss.
Kimbrel did his business against the Reds on the 13th. On the 19th, he got his work in against the White Sox. That inning featured a walk among the trio of strikeouts. Dayan Viciedo swung through a two-strike fastball up. Gordon Beckham watched a two-strike fastball over the outer edge. Blake Tekotte walked, but also watched a strike and fouled one away. Alejandro De Aza was frozen by a two-strike curve to end it.
And on the 22nd, it was the Mets, and it was raining. Ike Davis went down on three pitches. John Buck went and got himself drilled. Juan Lagares swung through a two-strike fastball up. Omar Quintanilla walked on ten pitches. That plate appearance included the 41st and final strike of Kimbrel’s streak:
Quintanilla only barely got a piece. He did enough to extend the inning to pinch-hitter Justin Turner. Turner took a curve for a ball. Then, with the tying run on second, and with the winning run on first, Turner swung at a pitch from Craig Kimbrel and hit it hard, in play, busting Kimbrel’s impossible streak:
That fast, Kimbrel went from hero to-
It had been a week and a half since a hitter hit a ball in play with Craig Kimbrel on the mound. Sometimes people speculate that defenders have a hard time staying on their toes behind a dominant pitcher who doesn’t give them any work. Jason Heyward went and saved the game, allowing Craig Kimbrel to, officially, save the game. Just like this, something unbelievable was followed by something unbelievable.
Craig Kimbrel may never pull off another streak of 41 strikes without a ball in play. He may never pitch like he’s already pitched in his first 3+ seasons. The Braves, of course, hope that he will, but relievers are unreliable and arms like this can be tragically injury-prone. Yet Kimbrel did do this, and it’s in the books, and it’s worthy of recognition. No matter what happens from here, try not to forget what Craig Kimbrel has been. He’s been a closer who’s allowed an OPS a hundred points lower than Mariano Rivera. The primary thing working against the Braves here is there aren’t supposed to be pitchers like this.
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