Kimbrel's early performance as Orioles closer enhances Hall of Fame argument -
Rich Dubroff

Kimbrel’s early performance as Orioles closer enhances Hall of Fame argument

Photo Credit: Tommy Gilligan USA TODAY Sports


Recently, a veteran Oriole player asked me if I thought that Craig Kimbrel was a Hall of Famer. I replied that I didn’t know and decided that even though Kimbrel is still pitching and pitching very well, it was worth an advanced look.

It’s a great honor to be one of the voters for the Hall of Fame. Ten-year members in the Baseball Writers’ Association of America are eligible, and in the results announced in January, there were 385 ballots cast.

If Kimbrel were elected in the future, he’d be one of the few pure closers in Cooperstown.

There are only eight: Dennis Eckersley, Rollie Fingers, Goose Gossage, Trevor Hoffman, Mariano Rivera, Lee Smith, Bruce Sutter and Hoyt Wilhelm.

Eckersley began his career as a starter, but 387 of his 390 saves were compiled after he turned 32. John Smoltz spent four seasons as a closer for the Atlanta Braves, but about two-thirds of his games were as a starter.

Billy Wagner, for whom I’ve voted in the last two elections, was nearly voted in this year and should be in his final shot in 2025. Wagner received 73.8 percent of the vote; it takes 75 percent for election.

Kimbrel is eighth on the all-time saves list with 421. His next save will tie him with Wagner, his 2010 teammate in Atlanta, for seventh place.

Boston Red Sox closer Kenley Jansen, who has played concurrently with Kimbrel, has 424 saves, and he’s tied with John Franco, who’s not in the Hall of Fame, for fifth place.

Francisco Rodriguez, who received 7.8 percent of the vote this year, is in fourth place with 437 saves. He briefly pitched for the Orioles in 2013 but not in any save situations.

It was K-Rod’s second time on the ballot, and to remain eligible, a candidate must receive 5 percent of the vote.

Kimbrel, who will turn 36 on May 28th, signed a one-year, $12 million contract to replace Félix Bautista, who’s rehabbing from Tommy John surgery and is expected to return next season. The Orioles hold a $13 million club option for 2025 with a $1 million buyout.

Kimbrel is in his 15th major league season, and the Orioles are his eighth team. His greatest success came with his first team, the Atlanta Braves. He recorded 185 saves from 2011-2014, and led the National League and was selected to the All-Star team in each of those years. He had a 1.43 ERA with the Braves and was the National League Rookie of the Year in 2011.

He also dominated during his three seasons with the Boston Red Sox, amassing 108 saves from 2016-2018, and he fondly recalled those days when he pitched at Fenway Park earlier this month for the first time since leaving the Red Sox.

Kimbrel also made the All-Star team in each of his seasons with the Red Sox.

He’s also pitched for the San Diego Padres, Los Angeles Dodgers, Chicago Cubs and White Sox and Philadelphia Phillies.

Though his first two years with the Cubs were forgettable, he had a terrific half-season in 2021 with an 0.49 ERA, and again was named an All-Star before a late July trade to the White Sox.

Kimbrel also was named an All-Star for the ninth time in Philadelphia last season.

This season, he’s been outstanding for the Orioles, allowing a run on three hits in eight innings, striking out 14 without walking a batter. He’s 3-0 with four saves.

While all those numbers are extraordinarily impressive, some skeptics point to his 4.50 postseason ERA. Kimbrel has pitched in 30 postseason games with 10 saves. Two of his three losses came last year for the Phillies in their National League Championship Series loss to Arizona.

Some of those same skeptics point to Wagner’s 10.03 ERA in 14 postseason games.

That hasn’t stopped me from voting for Wagner, and Kimbrel’s October numbers don’t bother me, either.

None of the 10 most similar relievers according to are in the Hall of Fame. Jansen and Wagner are the most similar to Kimbrel. Rodriguez is fifth.

In effect, Kimbrel is auditioning for Hall of Fame voters with the Orioles, just as Vladimir Guerrero, who played his final season with the Orioles, did in 2011. In that Orioles season, Guerrero added 163 hits to his stat line, enough to lead players born in the Dominican Republic.

Since then, Albert Pujols surpassed his total, but that performance didn’t hurt Guerrero’s case.

Jim Thome also played his final months as a Hall of Fame player with the Orioles in 2012, but his Hall of Fame resume was already solid.

Kimbrel’s pitching well enough to play for several more years, and with a five-year waiting period before his name goes to the electorate, it may be eight or 10 years until he’s eligible.

While I don’t like to prejudge players, it’s safe to say that what I’ve seen during the first three weeks of the Orioles’ season has certainly enhanced Kimbrel’s Hall of Fame argument.

Call for questions: Each weekday, I’ll answer at least one Orioles questions. Please send yours to: [email protected].

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