June 28, 2011 at 8:22 pm by Ben Duronio under Atlanta Braves
…is not Jonny Venters. It’s probably Craig Kimbrel. This is potentially surprising to some, and gratifying to Braves fans who are able to enjoy the spoils of having arguably the top two relievers in the game on their team, but the numbers do not lie.
Here are the league leaders in fWAR as a reliever with their innings pitched totals attached:
Craig Kimbrel 1.6, 39.0
Jonny Venters 1.4, 49.0
David Robertson 1.3, 31.1
John Axford 1.1, 35.1
Mariano Rivera 1.1, 30.1
There are arguments for other pitchers not on the list, such as Sergio Romo, Joel Hanrahan, Al Alburquerque, or even two-time former Brave Kyle Farnsworth, but Kimbrel’s argument is probably strongest when looking at who the best pitcher out of the bullpen truly is.
Let’s start with Venters. Jonny has been tremendous, and if not for his poor performance on Sunday he would probably sit at 1.7 fWAR — he sat at 1.6 entering Sunday. Even if you take that performance out and add in a base runner free inning, a 1.7 fWAR in 49 innings is not better than a 1.6 fWAR in 39. It’s close, but if you put Kimbrel’s performance in 49 innings he has the higher number. Regardless, Kimbrel’s performance in 10 fewer innings has been more valuable than Venters’ has, according to Fangraphs WAR.
The league leader in xFIP is Sergio Romo, who has pitched only 24 innings and has faced 68 right-handed batters compared to just 23 left-handers. In contrast, Kimbrel has faced 79 righties and 82 lefties. Romo has basically been used as a right-handed specialst, where he has succeeded tremendously. However, it is tough to be labeled “best reliever in baseball” while being used in this fashion. Romos’ splits against lefties are pretty gross (1.028 OPS against), so his usage is not necessarily incorrect. After Romo, the next lowest xFIP is Kimbrel at 2.19.
The same story goes for FIP, where Romo leads and Kimbrel is right behind. Of the four relievers who average over 14 strikeouts per nine, the only pitcher under 5.6 walks per nine is Kimbrel, who sits at 4.15. That’s not a great number, but he has shown the best control out of the other members of the insane strikeout rate club.
This could all change with an outing or two, putting Venters or Robertson in the lead of most categories, but Kimbrel has somewhat quietly become the top reliever in the game. His five blown saves likely have a lot to do with this. Many look at saves and blown saves to determine how effective a closer is, which is a pretty flawed way to look at their production. While Kimbrel’s peripherals are second to none, he has been hurt by a .325 BABIP, which has lead to a few blown saves. That number should sink, which will in turn likely lower his ERA. The walks have also caused a few poor outings, but 18 walks in 39 innings is hardly a legitimate problem combined with Kimbrel’s strikeout rate.
Results wise, meaning runs allowed, Kimbrel has lagged behind a number of relievers in both leagues. His 2.77 ERA ranks 60th in all of baseball compared to his fellow bullpen peers. All things being equal, that number is sure to drop. If he continues to strikeout batters at this rate while allowing under 4.5 walks per nine, he should see his results improve dramatically. Looking purely at results is not the best way to determine who the best pitcher or reliever in baseball is, which is why defense independent stats were created in the first place. For what he can control, no bullpen arm in baseball has been better than Kimbrel.