Craig Kimbrel has started his major league career by collecting Ks like no other reliever ever has. Atlanta's stopper has whiffed 15.2 batters per nine innings in 83.1 innings pitched over the past two seasons, giving him the highest K rate among relievers tossing 80+ frames during their first two years in the show:
Source: Baseball-Reference; minimum 80% of innings pitched must have come as a reliever
In its 2011 Prospect Handbook, Baseball America called Kimbrel "reminiscent of a right-handed Billy Wagner." That comparison, from Kimbrel's stature to his quick delivery to his repertoire, looks spot-on. Like Wagner, Kimbrel pounds the strike zone with his scorching fastball and sends hitters flailing after a power slider usually located off the plate.
Kimbrel has averaged nearly 96 MPH with his fastball in the majors, topping out at just under 100 MPH. With that kind of velocity, why nibble around the corners? Kimbrel doesn't:
The Wallace State Community College product has thrown about 35 percent of his fastballs down the middle of the strike zone, and just about nobody has been able to turn on those heart-of-the-plate heaters. Opponents have whiffed at 26 percent of Kimbrel's middle-zone fastballs and have a .179/.214/.209 line against those pitches. The major league averages for middle-plate fastballs? A 14 whiff rate, with a .293/.321/.473 triple-slash. Most pitchers get crushed when they catch the fat part of the plate with a fastball, but not Kimbrel.
While Kimbrel goes right after batters with his fastball, he uses his upper-80s slider as a chase pitch:
Just 38 percent of his sliders have crossed the plate, compared to the 47 percent MLB average. Hitters are certainly going after the breaking ball (43 percent chase rate, 35 percent average), with the result being lots of empty swings. Kimbrel has a 54 percent miss rate with his slider over the 2010-2011 seasons, ranking behind teammate Jonny Venters, Sergio Santos, Greg Holland and Al Alburquerque among relievers.
As the inclusion of B.K. Kim and John Rocker on that K/9 list above shows, trying the map the career path of a young power reliever is tough. And he's got eons to go to prove that he has anything nearing Wagner's longevity. But, equipped with strikeout stuff that would make "Billy the Kid" proud, Kimbrel could be a new-generation Wagner as long as he stays healthy.