Red Sox: Craig Kimbrel comparable to Hall of Fame closer Trevor Hoffman

BOSTON, MA - SEPTEMBER 30: Craig Kimbrel #46 of the Boston Red Sox reacts after beating the Houston Astros and winning the AL East Division at Fenway Park on September 30, 2017 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - SEPTEMBER 30: Craig Kimbrel #46 of the Boston Red Sox reacts after beating the Houston Astros and winning the AL East Division at Fenway Park on September 30, 2017 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images) /

Closers rarely make it to Cooperstown but with Trevor Hoffman joining the Hall of Fame Class of 2018, what does that say about Craig Kimbrel’s chances?

Craig Kimbrel has been among the elite closers in baseball since ascending to the role in 2011 with the Atlanta Braves. He’s coming off one of the best seasons of his career with the Boston Red Sox in which he was recognized as the best reliever in the American League. Will we one day recognize him as one of the best relievers in MLB history?

I bring this up because long-time San Diego Padres closer Trevor Hoffman will be enshrined in the Hall of Fame later this year. He’s only the sixth pitcher who spent a significant portion of their career as a reliever to make it to Cooperstown. While Mariano Rivera will almost certainly make it seven when he becomes eligible next year, closers getting elected into the Hall of Fame is a rarity.

The few relievers who have been enshrined handled heavier workloads than the closers of today. Hoyt Wilhelm and Rollie Fingers routinely logged multiple innings, sometimes as many as four or five in an appearance. That’s unfathomable by the standards of today’s closers. Bruce Sutter topped 80 innings in each of his first ten years in the majors, including a handful in which his workload hit triple-digit innings. By comparison, Kimbrel has never pitched more than 77 innings in a season.

The first traditional closer to make it into the Hall of Fame was Dennis Eckersley, who spent more than half of his career as a starting pitcher. Rich Gossage was a multi-inning reliever in the mold of the Hall of Fame closers who came before him before conforming to a more traditional closer role later in his career. Goose still showed he was capable of pitching 130+ innings out of the bullpen, which Kimbrel will never do.

The only comparable to Kimbrel among the Hall of Fame closers in terms of the role they filled is Hoffman, who spent his entire career in the bullpen and averaged about 63 innings per season.

Now that Hoffman is in, what does that say about the chances for Kimbrel, whose numbers stack of favorably?


A career comparison isn’t entirely fair to Hoffman, who lasted 18 seasons in the majors before retiring at the age of 42. His numbers are slightly influenced by some late-career regression that Kimbrel hasn’t had to deal with yet.

The gap narrows a bit when we compare the first eight seasons of their respective careers but the edge still clearly goes to Kimbrel.


While it appears Kimbrel is on pace to have a better career than Hoffman, it’s a bit premature for the Red Sox closer to start working on his Hall of Fame induction speech.

Hoffman never carried the workload that the closers who came before him did but what he does have in his favor is longevity. He took over the closer role with the Padres in 1994 and held that role until the emergence of John Axford pried it away from him with the Milwaukee Brewers in 2010. During that span, Hoffman racked up 601 saves, which set a major league record. Rivera would later break his saves record, yet Hoffman still sits in second on the all-time list and nobody else is even close.

As noted above, Kimbrel has more career saves than Hoffman had at the same stage of his career. He’s also younger than Hoffman was after his eighth season. If we ignore Kimbrel’s brief introduction to the majors in 2010 when he recorded only one save in 20 innings, he’s averaged over 41 saves over the last seven seasons. Kimbrel needs 310 saves to catch Hoffman – more than double his current total. At the rate he has been piling up saves, Kimbrel could conceivably surpass Hoffman on the all-time saves list if he continues to pitch at this level for another eight seasons.

Is it conceivable that Kimbrel’s career could last until he’s 37 years old? Sure, that’s not uncommon for a relief pitcher. Will he still be pitching at an elite level by then? That’s where a shadow of doubt starts to creep in.

Kimbrel is one of baseball’s most dominant closers due in part to a blazing fastball that averages about 98 mph and can be cranked up to triple-digits. He has thrown his fastball just over 70 percent of the time over the course of his career, according to FanGraphs. He also mixes in a filthy knuckle-curveball with knee-buckling movement that makes it nearly impossible to hit when the batter is sitting on the heater.

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Therein lies the rub. Kimbrel needs that overpowering fastball in order to set up the breaking ball. Pitchers tend to lose a tick on their velocity as they age, which may make it difficult for Kimbrel to match Hoffman’s longevity. He never had the type of heat that Kimbrel has but Hoffman still saw a noticeable decline in velocity late in his career. FanGraphs only tracks velocity data back to 2007 but by that stage of his career, Hoffman’s average fastball clocked in at around the mid-80’s.

Can Kimbrel still thrive if he sees a similar decline in velocity? Hoffman managed to adjust late in his career, making an All-Star appearance at age 41 despite diminishing velocity. Maybe Kimbrel can do the same but it would require him to reinvent himself. Pitchers have done it before but we have no evidence to show Kimbrel will do it.

There’s still at least a few more years before Kimbrel has to worry about hitting any decline phase but he’ll need more than a few years of pitching at this level to get his saves total in the same ballpark as Hoffman. Any late-career fade will take some of the shine off Kimbrel’s overall peripheral numbers. We can’t necessarily count on his sparkling ERA, WHIP, and strikeout rate carrying him to Cooperstown if those numbers could look far less dominant by the time his career is done.

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It’s fair to say that Kimbrel is on pace for a Hall of Fame-caliber career but it takes a special type of pitcher to last long enough at this level to join the elite group of relievers who have been enshrined. Since his career innings total won’t match the relievers who are already in, Kimbrel will need to last long enough to at least approach the save total of Hoffman while avoiding a steep drop off in the rest of his numbers in order to deserve a spot in the Hall of Fame.

Kimbrel may prove worthy of that honor in the end but he’s not there yet. This is merely the halfway point on his path and there’s still a long way to go.