50 saves. 128 strikeouts. 1.70 earned run average. Braves rookie closer Craig Kimbrel is on pace for a stellar season. Not just for a rookie, but for any pitcher. Rookie, veteran, starter, reliever, there’s no debate that Kimbrel has emerged as one of the best pitchers in the National League this season. But with starting pitchers generally garnering all of the attention in the Cy Young Award race, closers like Kimbrel are often overlooked during award season. But let’s consider a few things before slamming the door shut on the 23-year old flamethrower’s chances.
The Cy Young race isn’t chock full of outstanding candidates. It’s basically down to two starting pitchers: reigning Cy Young Roy Halladay of the Phillies and young stud Clayton Kershaw of the Dodgers. Both look to finish the season in the top 5 in strikeouts, wins, and ERA. Halladay is the best pitcher on the best team in baseball. Sure that’s an easy argument. He might end up 19-6 with 200 strikeouts and at least 7 complete games. Kershaw’s looking at 20 wins, 230 strikeouts, and an ERA under 2.50. But he pitches for a losing team, a team half a game away from being in last place in the NL West. He’s got no pressure to perform at this stage of the season. No pressure to step up and win ballgames. Halladay? Sure he’s got pressure, but knock down Halladay, and three more aces emerge (Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, and Roy Oswalt), and the Phillies are in good shape. So what about Kimbrel? The closer for the league’s #2 seed, he’s not allowed a run in over two months. During a key part of the Braves’ season, with a slim lead in the wild card, their chances at a division title fading, Kimbrel stepped up his game and has been perfect. Now the Braves sit within 6 games of the Phillies while sporting a robust 9.5 game lead over the Giants in the wild card race.
When was the last time a reliever won the Cy Young, you might ask? Well that was the Dodgers’ closer Eric Gagne in 2003. He finished out the season with 55 saves, 137 strikeouts, and a 1.20 ERA. A better line than Kimbrel’s might be? Sure. But let’s see who he beat out:
Mark Prior: 18-6, 245 K, 2.43 ERA
Jason Schmidt: 17-5, 208 K, 2.34 ERA
Those numbers look familiar? So before you think that the year Kershaw and Halladay are putting together will absolutely keep Craig Kimbrel from putting up a fight for the Cy Young, just remember.. its happened before. And he’s certainly earned the right to make it happen again.