Craig Kimbrel and the perils of investing in a closer

Jonathan Daniel

Craig Kimbrel has been fantastic for the Braves since arriving in the majors. But, considering how risky expensive, long-term investments in closers often are, will the Braves end up regretting Kimbrel's contract?

The recent wave of contract extensions from the Atlanta Braves saw yet another new agreement take place, as the club locked up closer Craig Kimbrel on a shiny new four-year contract. Kimbrel is the latest of the Braves' group of young players eligible for extensions, as Freddie Freeman and Julio Teheran have also been locked up over the past week or so. Each deal has come with a decent amount of positive vibes surrounding them.

At the same time, however, it's important to acknowledge the significant risk the Braves are taking with each. For Freeman and Teheran, the risk is simply characterized by their respective lack of service time at the big league level. The situation is different with Kimbrel, though, as throwing such a hefty amount of cash at a closer does come with a potentially enormous risk.

Such is the case with most lucrative, long-term deals for closers. When successful teams build bullpens, they tend to do it on the cheap. We don't need to delve too far into that one to know that it's accurate. In the case of closers, we often see these big-money contracts blow up in the faces of the respective teams that sign them (Read: Carlos Marmol, Jonathan Papelbon). Will that be the case with Kimbrel?

Not necessarily.

There are plenty of valid arguments to be made against signing closers to big-money contracts. Their impact on the game, in terms of workload, is extremely limited compared to starters and position players. And they rarely seem to last in whatever successful run they do have (Read: Brian Wilson).

In Kimbrel, the Braves have perhaps the best ninth-inning pitcher currently in the game. He saved 50 games in 2013 (a career high), while punching out over 13 hitters per nine, walking under three per nine, and posting a 1.21 ERA, along with a 1.93 FIP. In a few different categories, that actually represented something of a down year for him.

This is what Kimbrel's last three years have looked like, since he first took over as the full-time closer in Atlanta:

Innings Saves K/9 BB/9 ERA FIP WAR
2011 77.0 46 14.84 3.74 2.10 1.52 3.1
2012 62.2 42 16.66 2.01 1.01 0.78 3.3
2013 67 50 13.16 2.69 1.21 1.93 2.2

Those are some pretty gaudy numbers across the board. Specifically intriguing is that in two of those three seasons, Kimbrel has posted a WAR of at least three, putting him in some pretty elite company throughout recent major league history. Only Eric Gagne, Mariano Rivera, Jonathan Papelbon, and Joe Nathan have posted multiple seasons of at least 3 WAR since the turn of the century. Therein you see the potential upside for this deal between Kimbrel and the Braves.

It's entirely possible that Kimbrel ends up like Gagne, burning out after a short stretch of dominance. We've seen it time and time again (Marmol). That's one of the major concerns with this deal, and with investing in a closer overall. Kimbrel isn't going to be Rivera. If he can pan out like Nathan or Papelbon, particularly in the latter's Boston years, then the Braves are sitting pretty with this deal.

Plain and simple, Kimbrel finds success because he misses bats. He strikes out opposing hitters at a rate that is among the best the game has ever seen. That high-90s fastball coupled with a devastating curveball are a deadly combination for those stepping in the batter's box in the ninth inning. He has averaged over 15 strikeouts per nine for his career, which is the best all time for a reliever. It's hard to deny that he's the best reliever in the game today.

At the same time, though, it's important to acknowledge the dangers that come with signing a closer to a long-term, big-money deal. Closers burn out. They get hurt, particularly when you're talking about a guy with Kimbrel's skill set. It's very possible that the Braves have their very own Eric Gagne set to make $14 million a year.

Of course, they could end up with a Nathan or Papelbon type who finds consistent success for a number of years, which would make this deal a fantastic one for Atlanta.

The question remains—which closer will Kimbrel ultimately be?

...

All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs.

Randy Holt is a writer at Beyond The Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @RandallPnkFloyd.

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