This is not the guy major league hitters want to be facing at the end of a game right now.
Red Sox flamethrower Craig Kimbrel has been pitching insanely good to start 2017, and the numbers don’t lie. As of May 31, his 0.39 WHIP, .079 BAA, and 2.35 hits-per-nine are all tops in the majors among the 113 pitchers who’ve tossed at least 20 innings without making a start.
For Kimbrel, just three of those qualifiers have a better ERA than his 0.78 mark, one (Tommy Kahlene) surpasses his 16.43 Ks-per-nine, and one (Kenley Jansen, no walks yet) has a higher Ks-to-walk ratio than his current mark at 14.
Needless to say, Kimbrel has been lights out at the back end of the Boston bullpen. It’s especially been the case against right-handed hitters, who are a combined 0-43 with 23 strikeouts against him. Yikes.
Since issuing back-to-back walks to Ian Kinsler and Nicholas Castellanos on April 9, RHHs were retired in 34 straight plate appearances (19 strikeouts) against Kimbrel until Todd Frazier drew a walk on a 3-2 pitch against him on May 30.
Other than Kinsler, Castellanos, and Frazier, the only other RHHs in baseball to reach base against Kimbrel in 2017 are Jody Mercer (error) and Andrew McCutchen (fielder’s choice) on April 3.
With the way Kimbrel’s going, he’s on pace to do something he’s accomplished twice in his career—have an ERA below 1.50, a WHIP below 1.00, at least 13 Ks-per-nine, and at least 50 innings pitched. Only six other relief pitchers have had such a season, all since 2003.
Two outings in particular this season for the Boston closer have been especially notable. On May 11 at Milwaukee, Kimbrel pitched the 85th immaculate inning in baseball history and joined Pedro Martinez (2002) and Clay Buchholz (2012) as the only Red Sox pitchers to accomplish the feat. Exactly two weeks later on May 25, Kimbrel recorded four strikeouts in the ninth inning vs Texas—also the 85th occurrence it’s been done—joining Tim Wakefield in 1999 as the only other Red Sox pitcher to do that.
The two overpowering appearances put Kimbrel in his own company as the only pitcher to record both such innings in a single year. He also became the third pitcher (Burnett, Greinke) to record a 4-strikeout frame in both leagues. Lastly, just six other pitchers have tossed an immaculate and 4-strikeout inning in their career (Gibson, Hernandez, Burnett, Delabar, Masterson, Jansen).
Overall on the season, Kimbrel’s 14 saves are tied with four relievers for second most in MLB. His only blown save came on April 20 at Toronto as Kendrys Morales took him deep for a solo shot in the ninth. The Red Sox went on to win in 10 innings, as Kimbrel retired the final three batters in the game. He has not allowed an earned run since (16 innings) while converting his last eight save opportunities.
May has been especially dominant for the 29-year-old, as he’s allowed just one hit all month—an infield single to Jonathan Villar on May 11.
Obviously Kimbrel has figured it out in Boston. After a first season which saw him struggle with control (30 walks, 4 HBP in 53 innings), it appears those problems are all but solved as he’s regained the status of a truly elite closer—if not the best in baseball.