When the Philadelphia Phillies signed Craig Kimbrel to a one-year, $10 million deal this past offseason, there were some questions about the reliever's abilities at this point in his career. He was coming off a stretch of rough seasons as he tried to gain traction with several different teams following his last productive season in 2018— his last dominant season and the season he won a World Series with the Boston Red Sox.
The Phillies took a chance on Kimbrel and added him to a solid bullpen. There were questions as to whether he would be the team's closer or if Rob Thomson would use a closer-by-committee approach. To begin the year Thomson gave Kimbrel opportunities to close, but the veteran reliever was inconsistent. It all came to a head on May 3rd when he allowed a walk off grand slam to Max Muncy which wrapped up a series sweep in Los Angeles.
Since surrendering that grand slam, Kimbrel has pitched 24 innings and has allowed just three earned runs. In that span he has struck out 40 batters and has looked absolutely dominant. Now that he has reinvented himself and is showing signs of being a top closer again, does he have a shot at being inducted into the Hall of Fame?
Craig Kimbrel's Hall of Fame case
Evaluating a reliever's shot at being enshrined in Cooperstown is a bit difficult. There have only been eight closers inducted to this point and the role of the relief pitcher has evolved differently than most other positions in the game. The relievers already in the Hall of Fame include: Mariano Rivera, Dennis Eckersley, Hoyt Wilhelm, Goose Gossage, Trevor Hoffman, Lee Smith, Rollie Fingers and Bruce Sutter.
What are important stats to look at when deciding if a reliever should head to Cooperstown? Saves is an obvious choice, but a flawed one at the same time. While the Hall of Fame voters will undoubtedly look at the number of saves a reliever has compiled, it likely would not be the only stat that would get him into the Hall. Saves can be team-dependent and it is a stat that relievers have no control over, but to finish a game in a unique circumstance.
Kimbrel is currently eighth all-time in saves with 407. He is just one of eight pitchers to eclipse the 400-save mark. His number of saves are higher than five closers already inducted into the Hall of Fame. The only closers with more saves than Kimbrel already in Cooperstown are Rivera, Hoffman, and Smith.
Another stat that voters use to determine who gets elected is career WAR, WAR over a longer span, and a player's average season WAR. All of these stats can be factored together to compare a current player's WAR to those already in the Hall of Fame (JAWS). This is the area in which Kimbrel still has some work to do.
Kimbrel stands below each closer already in the Hall in terms of JAWS. Currently, Kimbrel sits at 21.0. He is not far behind Fingers, Hoffman, Sutter, and Smith, however, as they sit at 22.2, 23.7, 24.2, and 24.8, respectively.
Kimbrel's WAR per season for his career is right at 2.1. If he can stay around that average for two or three more seasons, he would be right in the mix in terms of advanced statistics that some of the voters use to make their Hall of Fame choices. The issue is that Kimbrel is already 35 years old so time is ticking for him. He is getting older and his effectiveness as a closer may begin to wane sooner rather than later.
Kimbrel's ERA+, however, currently is only lower than Rivera's. This tells voters that he is able to keep runs off the board. In comparison to other closers already enshrined, he sits well above other dominant closers by a significant margin.
Kimbrel's performance this year and the remaining years that he has left in baseball will ultimately determine if he gets into Cooperstown. While he is probably not a Hall of Famer if he were to retire after this season, there is still a decent chance he could get in if he has another successful season or two.