Seasons in Boston: 2016-2018
Honors: 2018 World Series Champion, 2011 National League Rookie of the Year, 7x All-Star, 2012 Rolaids Reliever of the Year Winner, 2014 Trevor Hoffman Reliever of the Year Winner, 2017 Mariano Rivera Reliever of the Year Winner
Red Sox Numbers: 2.44 ERA, 0.91 WHIP, 12 W, 108 SV, 305 K, 55 ERA-, 5.8 fWAR
Signature Season (2017): 69 IP, 126 K, 5 W, 35 SV, 1.43 ERA, 0.68 WHIP, 3.2 fWAR
As we move to the back of the bullpen on our all-time roster, we are starting to get to some truly special relievers. In Craig Kimbrel the Red Sox had one of the best closers in the history of the game. The problem was that at times it felt that way but at other times it felt like you were on a ride you wanted to get off. The end result of Kimbrel’s three years with the team was 108 saves, a World Series victory, and 2.44 ERA over 184.1 innings pitched. That is undeniably elite, even if it didn’t always feel that way.
One of the first moves that Dave Dombrowski made after becoming the new President of Baseball Operations of the Red Sox late in 2015 was trading for Kimbrel. At that time there were a few weaknesses identified on the team including in the ninth inning. Dombrowski’s refreshingly direct approach to problem solving was felt immediately as he sent four players — Manuel Margot, Carlos Asuaje, Javier Guerra, and Logan Allen — to the Padres in exchange for the closer. Some criticized Dombrowski for giving up too much to get the then-27-year-old star closer coming off a 39-save year with a 2.58 ERA, but as was often the case with Dombrowski it ended up being a good deal.
Through his age-27 season, his last with the Padres, the elite Kimbrel had already compiled more saves than anyone in history through their age-27 season except for Francisco Rodriguez, with the latter holding a 243 to 225 advantage. Kimbrel had done this while maintaining a career 1.63 ERA, the lowest ever through age-27. When he stepped on the mound for the Red Sox in 2016 fans were expecting more of that. What they got instead was a good closer with control issues. In his first full season with his new team Kimbrel posted a career worst (to that point) 3.40 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, and perhaps most maddening 5.1 walks per nine innings.
I remember thinking after this season that we had traded for an over the hill closer. Boy was I wrong. In 2017, Kimbrel bounced back with a season for the ages. That year, doing his best 2012 Kimbrel impression, he posted a 1.43 ERA, 0.68 WHIP, and a 44.1% strikeout minus walk ratio. His strikeout minus walk rate was the second best in history, just 0.1% off his own MLB record set in that aforementioned 2012 season. FanGraphs said he was worth 3.2 WAR in 2017, the most ever by a Red Sox reliever, just ahead of 2006 Jonathan Papelbon and 2013 Koji Uehara who both came in at 3.1. His ERA- of 31 was the third best in team history behind those two historic seasons from Uehara and Papelbon making this one of the finest relief seasons in Red Sox history.
Unfortunately for us fans and for Kimbrel his 2018 season felt a whole lot more like his 2016 season than it did his 2017. The numbers were still elite on the surface, 2.74 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, and 42 saves, his best ever total with the Red Sox. However, if you dig under the surface a little it was much more similar to 2016. In 2016, he posted a K%-BB% of 24.1% and in 2018 he posted a rate of 26.3%. This was mostly to do with his issues putting men on base, after posting just a 5.5% walk rate in 2017 he was back up to 12.6% in 2018. Kimbrel also had five blown saves, the most since he blew 11 in his rookie season. During the Red Sox playoff run, which of course ended in a World Series win, he also posted a 5.91 ERA while walking eight batters in just 10.2 innings pitched. Although he was able to earn six saves without blowing one, the Kimbrel experience was not a relaxing one.
Following this season it was time for the Red Sox and Kimbrel to look in other directions. He was a free agent and likely wanted more money that the Red Sox were comfortable paying him. He would end up signing a three-year $43 million dollar deal with old friend Theo Epstein and the Cubs. To this point in his career Kimbrel is 13th all-time in saves with 346 and is projected to easily crack the top ten as his career continues. He’s just 21 saves away from the tenth spot. Kimbrel owns the second best K%-BB% in baseball history at 31.2%, the third lowest opponent batting average at .157, the third best ERA- at 51, the third best ERA at 2.08, and the fifth best WHIP at 0.95.
If there is a weakness to be found with Kimbrel its home runs and walks. His career home runs per nine innings is 0.72 which is the 802nd best mark by qualified relievers and since 2016 he has posted his three worst walk rates of his career with 2017 being the exception. Kimbrel’s fastball/curveball combination has always been so elite that he could overcome these flaws. He finished his time with the Red Sox first in team history in K%-BB% at 31.9%, first in opponent batting average at .145, second in WHIP at 0.91 behind only Uehara, and third in both ERA- at 55 and ERA at 2.44 behind both Papelbon and Uehara.
As frustrating as he could be at times, no one in baseball had the ability to be as dominant as Kimbrel when he was on. Was he clutch? That’s hard to say. He didn’t blow any saves during the 2018 postseason run but he also wasn’t dominant. During that run he allowed earned runs in five of his nine appearances. To put that in perspective Uehara allowed earned runs in just one of his 13 appearances during the 2013 postseason run. He holds a pretty pedestrian 3.92 career postseason ERA, but he’s also one of only 14 relievers with a 50-save season in his career. Kimbrel is the rare athlete where the perception of him doesn’t always match the performance. Ultimately, though, during his three years here with the Red Sox he certainly made a lasting impression on me and on the team’s history.