Evidence is in, and '13 looks like year of the closer
Kimbrel, Rivera among stellar relievers making saves look routine
Braves closer Craig Kimbrel gave up a hit Tuesday night. Yes, that qualifies as news. Mets shortstop Omar Quintanilla did the honors, getting just enough bat on a 99-mph fastball to bounce it into center field.
There was no ceremony, although, all things considered, there maybe should have been.
And that was that.
Kimbrel needed one more pitch, a 98-mph heater, to get Jacob Turner on a grounder to third to finish his 44th save. When it is notable that a guy gives up a lousy single, it tells you all you need to know about his season.
Kimbrel is the best closer in baseball and seemingly on his way to being one of the best ever. He allows a baserunner about every other game and has not given up an earned run since the Fourth of July.
Here is another nugget: In converting 34 straight save chances, he has not allowed a run. No pitcher has ever done this.
When Eric Gagne was at his best for the Dodgers, he once had a streak of 28 straight saves without allowing a run.
Anyway, Kimbrel is the best in the business at a time when the game has a handful of closers throwing almost incomprehensible numbers on the board.
This might be the year of the closer.
All over baseball, from Greg Holland of the Royals and Joe Nathan of the Rangers to Koji Uehara of the Red Sox and Kenley Jansen of the Dodgers, as well as others, some closers are making a difficult role look easy.
For instance, Uehara has converted 16 of 18 save chances since becoming the Red Sox closer in late June. In 32 1/3 innings, he has allowed one earned run, 10 hits and two walks. Opponents are batting .094.
Roll those numbers around in your head. He is not your classic power closer, getting by with a fastball that seldom hits 90 mph and a wicked split-finger pitch. Since both have the same basic delivery, one sets up the other.
In 26 appearances since July 2, he has allowed zero earned runs and 10 baserunners in 28 1/3 innings.
And there's Holland.
Like Kimbrel, he is all power, with a fastball that ticks 100 mph at times. And he is basically unhittable. In 55 innings, he has allowed 48 baserunners and has converted 38 of 40 save chances. He is averaging 14.1 strikeouts per nine innings and has allowed one earned run in his last 25 appearances.
And there is that guy who pitches the ninth inning for the Yankees. More on Mariano Rivera's historic career later.
Baseball's best closers these days are not simply guys who throw hard and have found their niche pitching at the end of games.
While some of the game's best closers do have dominant fastballs, plenty more are succeeding with quality secondary pitches combined with location, movement and poise.
At the moment, four pitchers -- Kimbrel, Holland, Joe Nathan and Edward Mujica -- have 30 saves with ERAs under 2.00 and WHIPs of under 1.00. That is more than the last two seasons combined.
Now, a word about Rivera.
He has 40 saves for the ninth time in his career and is allowing just over one runner per inning. Still, at 43, the results are as good as ever.
He is 41 for 46 in converting save chances and throwing strikes 70 percent of the time. He is so good that Yankees manager Joe Girardi said the other day he would ask Rivera to rethink his retirement announcement.
Here is another number that reflects Rivera's greatness. In 18 seasons, he has had at least 40 saves and an ERA below 2.00 seven times. No other reliever has done it more than twice.
Rivera has continued to pitch at an elite level even as his velocity has declined. His cutter topped out at an average of 93.2 mph in 2007, according to Fangraphs.com. It is still being clocked at 90.9.
Given the pitch's movement and Rivera's ability to locate it, he seemingly could pitch several more seasons, even if he did not maintain the same velocity.
Others are getting by on as much grit as power. Mujica has 35 saves and a 1.85 ERA thanks to a split-finger fastball that dips around home plate just as a hitter is forced to commit.
Nathan's velocity has declined as well, and he is throwing more sliders and curves. Not that anyone has noticed.
At 38, he has converted 38 of 40 save chances and is allowing less than one baserunner per inning, the second-best percentage of his 13-year career.
Less velocity? No sweat.
Perhaps only the teams that do not have a reliable closer can appreciate how good the Braves, Red Sox and others have it with theirs.
Players say letting ninth-inning leads slip away are the worst kinds of defeat, the ones that have the potential to carry into the next day or to create doubt in the minds of players.
For some teams, though, those ninth-inning leads have become pretty much automatic.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.