Boston Red Sox closer Craig Kimbrel reached 300 career saves faster than anyone in MLB history. Does he have a shot at breaking the all-time record?
Craig Kimbrel achieved a milestone when he closed out he ninth inning of the Boston Red Sox win in Texas, notching the 300th save of his career.
It took only 11 pitches for Kimbrel to breeze through the inning. The first batter he faced popped out in foul territory on the first pitch. Kimbrel struck out the next two Rangers to secure the victory.
The Red Sox closer is now second in the American League and fourth in the majors in saves, converting nine of ten opportunities this season. Kimbrel is putting together another elite campaign in a career in which he’s established himself as one of the best closers in history.
Only 28 other pitchers have ever reached the 300 save milestone. The 29-year old Kimbrel did it at a younger age than anyone. He’s also the fastest to reach 300 in terms of total games (494) and opportunities (330).
Kimbrel has been as dominant as anyone we’ve ever seen in the closer role. Yet as great as he’s been to this point in his career, he’s still not even halfway to the all-time save record. Former New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera set the bar with his record 652 career saves.
While he got to 300 faster than Rivera did, will Kimbrel have the longevity to break his record?
Kimbrel has tallied at least 31 saves in every season since he became a full-time closer in 2011. His career-high is 50, a total Rivera reached twice. Kimbrel has averaged 41.4 saves over his seven full seasons as a closer. He’s on pace to finish in that ballpark again this year.
A conservative estimate would tack on another 25 saves this season to give him 34. That’s one less than he tallied last year and a few more than his first season in Boston. If he finishes this season with 325 saves, he’ll be just short of halfway to Rivera’s record.
Saves are a team dependent statistic that are based in part on opportunity. However, Kimbrel is as efficient as they come with those opportunities. His 90.9 save percentage is the best in major league history (minimum 250 opportunities).
If he can maintain the efficiency he’s shown over the first 8+ years of his career to keep averaging about 41 saves per year, Kimbrel can break Rivera’s record with eight more seasons pitching at this level. If you expect that Kimbrel will still be closing games at age 38, it’s reasonable to project he is capable of topping 652 career saves.
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Is it reasonable to expect Kimbrel to last that long? Rivera certainly did, pitching until he was 43 years old. His 89.1 save percentage is a tick lower than Kimbrel’s. Rivera averaged 38.3 saves since taking over as the full-time Yankees closer in 1997, which is less than Kimbrel’s current rate.
Kimbrel has been a bit more efficient than Rivera was but matching his longevity is an entirely different matter. They are different types of pitchers.
Kimbrel relies on a blazing fastball to overpower hitters, owning a 14.7 K/9 rate for his career. Pitchers tend to see a decline in velocity as they age. What happens when Kimbrel can no longer crank it up to 100 mph? He still possess a filthy curve that can serve as an out pitch, although it may be easier for hitters to lay off the breaking ball if Kimbrel can no longer intimidate them with an overpowering fastball.
Rivera struck out fewer than one batter per inning but never needed to strike everyone out to be effective. His devastating cutter shattered bats and invited weak contact. This allowed him to remain at an elite level late in his career even after his velocity dipped into the low 90’s. The cut fastball isn’t as reliant on velocity as Kimbrel’s four-seam fastball, leaving Rivera less prone to a late-career fade.
Kimbrel should have several more years pitching at this level before he has to worry about losing any gas on his fastball. That would still leave him well short of the record. In order to top Rivera, Kimbrel may need to reinvent himself late in his career to adjust to the expected loss in velocity.
Regardless of what the future holds, this remains an impressive accomplishment. Being the fastest to 300 saves cements Kimbrel’s status as having the best first half of a career by a closer in MLB history. What he does in the second half of his career will determine his legacy among the all-time greats.