Kimbrel coming of age for Braves

Kimbrel coming of age for Braves

Kimbrel coming of age for Braves
ATLANTA -- Craig Kimbrel is bent over at the waist, staring straight ahead. He leans so far forward his torso is parallel to the infield grass unfolding in front of him. His right arm juts out, bent at the elbow to almost create a right angle. His forearm hangs loose, fingertips almost scraping the dirt of the pitcher's mound.

The pose seems better fit for a yoga studio than a baseball field, but this is how Kimbrel takes signs from his catcher. He never holds it for long -- there are, after all, only two signs for Braves catchers to cycle through when their closer is on the mound -- but it has become Kimbrel's signature, even more than his 97 mph fastball or devastating breaking ball.

Kimbrel made the All-Star Game in each of his first two full seasons, won the National League Rookie of the Year Award last year and leads all of baseball with 27 saves this season. He is considered by some to be the best closer in the Major Leagues. And yet, the pose is what captures imaginations.

When the Braves had a Kimbrel bobblehead night earlier this season, he was, of course, posed as if he were taking a sign from his catcher. Kimbreling was a thing for a brief moment in Atlanta last fall, caught somewhere between planking and Tebowing. This year, the pose is emblazoned on the back of one of the Braves' workout shirts.

It now seems unthinkable Kimbrel wouldn't take signs this way. But the pose has only been around for about two years.

The pose is the product of two events in 2010. Most directly, Kimbrel suffered a bout of bicep tendinitis that year. Before the injury, Kimbrel still bent as far forward, but instead of letting his right arm hang loose, he wrapped it around his back. That was too painful after the injury, so he let his arm hang. And then it took on a life of its own.

"I just started letting it hang, and it started hanging a little more and a little more and a little more," Kimbrel said. "I don't know, it's something that's kind of progressed, but it's comfortable and I think everybody likes it."

The other event happened in Spring Training, before Kimbrel was hurt. It was his first time in Major League Spring Training, which put him in close proximity to then-Braves closer Billy Wagner. From Wagner, Kimbrel said he learned a lot about the mental side of being a reliever, like how to calm himself down and simplify the game.

Wagner, who is fifth all-time with 422 career saves, was also able to convince Kimbrel to abandon the windup and pitch exclusively out of the stretch. Once he made the change, Kimbrel said he saw immediate results. All of a sudden it was easier to repeat his delivery, and throwing strikes became more natural. He now credits the decision to abandon the windup with being a main reason he was able to quickly succeed in the Major Leagues.

"You really learn a lot about your mechanics when you do it over and over again," Kimbrel said. "You know where your arm's going to be, you know where it needs to be. That was a big part of my game. It was a game changer."

The change seems obvious, however. Most Major League relievers don't ever throw out of the windup. Hadn't anyone ever suggested the tweak before?

"Yeah, but I didn't listen," Kimbrel said. "When Billy Wagner tells you you probably need to try that out, you're going to try it out."

The results were every bit as good as Kimbrel remembers. Between Triple-A and the Majors in 2010, he struck out 123 batters in 76 1/3 innings. Just as importantly for the Braves, Kimbrel proved he was ready to step into Wagner's role after he retired that winter.

Wagner's influence on Kimbrel was clearly a positive one. And though Kimbrel said none of Wagner's lessons were about mechanics, that hasn't stopped comparisons between the two.

Unprompted, Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman made the connection.

"It's almost like a right-handed Billy Wagner," Zimmerman said. "It kind of comes out of his armpit, almost. It's tough to pick up and, obviously, his stuff's great."

Kimbrel is in the process of putting together a better season than Wagner ever had. He is on pace to save 50 games and strike out 115 batters in 65 innings. He last walked a batter on May 15.

At times, it seems impossible that anyone would ever get a hit off Kimbrel (opponents are hitting .118 against him). Mets first baseman Ike Davis was the most recent to accomplish the feat, pulling a single through the infield in an otherwise unblemished ninth inning Friday.

With Kimbrel's repertoire, Davis said it's even more imperative to make the most of the chances you do get.

"If you foul off a ball, and don't put that one in play that you can handle, it's a tough at-bat," Davis said.

Fellow Braves reliever Chad Durbin has pitched for six teams in his 13-year Major League career. He's played with many closers and had a front-row seat when Brad Lidge went a perfect 48-for-48 in save opportunities as the Phillies won the 2008 World Series.

Durbin said Kimbrel belongs in the same class of relievers as Lidge and is capable of having that kind of dream season someday.

"His stuff, across the board, is ridiculous," Durbin said. "I play catch with him every day. I know exactly what it's doing when it gets there. It's hard to put a glove on, so I'm sure it's hard to put a bat on."

Kimbrel has blown one save this year, so the perfect season will have to wait. But Kimbrel is aiming for it. His competitive drive demands it. He wants to win even when he participates in a regular pregame golf promotion, competing with a few fans to see who can hit an iron closest to a flag in center field about 80 yards away.

"Of course I do," Kimbrel said. "I'm not going out there to lose."

And a few hours later, having traded his golf club for his glove, Kimbrel is ready to win again. The bullpen gate opens and he runs to the mound with "Welcome to the Jungle" blaring through Turner Field. His work never takes long, quickly progressing from Kimbreling to shaking hands with his teammates in celebration of another save.

Teddy Cahill is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.