What happens when Craig Kimbrel's "in the conversation"?

Scott Cunningham

Do you think those guys are talking about Clayton Kershaw's record?

The other night during an Atlanta Braves telecast, the fellas got to talking about National League Cy Young Award candidates, which almost inevitably led a mention of my least-favorite phrase ...

Chip Caray: Kershaw's been really really good, but I don't think dominant. How can Craig Kimbrel not be in the Cy Young conversation right now?

Tom Glavine: Depends on your side of the argument. There's that argument that starting pitchers are paid to win games, and he's not leading the league in that category. He's got the good ERA, and the strikeouts, and the innings pitched, all those other numbers ...

Joe Simpson: Kershaw's 13 and 8. He's got an excellent ERA, but he's 13 and 8.

Glavine: What if this were Mariano Rivera in New York, having this kind of year. Would he be in the Cy Young or MVP conversation. Pretty sure he would be!

You want Craig Kimbrel in the conversation? Okay! Here's a conversation:

You: Hey, Rob, can we have a conversation about National League Cy Young candidates?

Me: You betcha!

You: Craig Kimbrel's having one hell of a season.

Me: He's the Braves' closer, right?

You: Yeah.

Me: This conversation is over.

and ....... Scene!

Yes, I'm kidding. My point is that "in the conversation" can mean just about anything you like.

For some people, "in the conversation" means "I've finished thinking about this, and if you say this guy's the best candidate, I'm not really going to argue with you."

For me, "in the conversation" means "This guy might not be the best candidate, or even -- in the case of Cy Young candidates, where you have three spaces on your ballot -- one of the three best candidates. If you think he is, I might argue with you. But I do have to do some work before I dismiss him."

I'm not sure about the first definition. But by the second? Yes, Kimbrel belongs in the conversation. Even if the conversation doesn't about him doesn't last long. In fact, I'm happy to concede this point, just to save time: EVERY YEAR THE LEAGUE'S BEST CLOSER MAY BE IN THE CONVERSATION.

Happy, now. You?

Kimbrel belongs in the conversation because he's got a 0.95 ERA. He belongs in the conversation because he's leading the National League in saves (again), and because he's converted 33 straight save opportunities. He's an incredible pitcher having an incredible season. The Cy Young Award should be reserved for pitching having incredible seasons. He's in the conversation.

The problem is that he hasn't been perfect. Before converting 33 straight opportunities, Kimbrel did blow three saves. The Braves lost all three of those games. They lost another when Kimbrel entered a tie game in the 9th and gave up one run. Simplistically speaking, the Braves have lost four more games than they might have, had Kimbrel been perfect.

Which is a brilliant record. For an "average" closer, the number would be more like seven or eight.

Does this undersell Kimbrel? Well, yeah it might. We often compare starting pitchers to "replacement-level" starting pitchers, because in fact some replacement-level starting pitchers do have long-term jobs in the majors. A lot of them, actually. This season, 19 pitchers have thrown enough innings to qualify for the ERA title and currently sport Wins Above Replacement (Wins+) lower than 1. In many cases, far lower than 1.

But replacement-level closers don't remain closers for long. Basically, you're not allowed to be lousy and keep that job for long. It seems to me that Wins+ is NOT FAIR to a pitcher like Kimbrel. According to Wins+, Kimbrel is only about three wins better than replacement-level ... which seems preposterous, doesn't it? Would a replacement-level relief pitcher have blown only seven games, compared to Kimbrel's four? I really doubt it. I don't have any math for you today, but I will suggest that a replacement-level relief pitcher would have blown 10 games this season. Pitching against good hitters is really hard. Jim Johnson has blown nine saves this season, Fernando Rodney eight, and they're presumably better than replacement-level.

Granted, the Orioles and Rays haven't lost all of those games. But if you want to argue that Kimbrel's really six Wins Above Replacement rather than (roughly) three, I'm not really going to argue with you.

The problem is that even bending over backward -- and in case you didn't notice, I've bent over pretty far -- I've still not gotten Kimbrel to Clayton Kershaw's level.

Should we dismiss closers out of hand? No, we shouldn't. And the voters don't. Not quite. Kimbrel finished fifth in the Cy Young balloting last season. Would Mariano Rivera be in the conversation, as Glavine suggested. The greatest closer in the history of baseball has never won a Cy Young Award. He's finished second once, and third three times. But while I've been criticizing voters every year since I started doing this, THEY GET THIS ONE RIGHT. Basically, the voters stopped paying much attention to closers when closers started throwing fewer than 70 innings per season.

Which is perfectly fair.

For a closer to be worth as much as a great starter, the closer has to be nearly perfect. Which wouldn't be an issue, except that almost every year there's a great starter, while the (nearly) perfect closer is a rare beast. When Eric Gagne won his Cy Young Award, he threw 82 innings and he converted 100 percent of his save opportunities. He did lose three games, so he wasn't quite perfect. But he was closer than Kimbrel's been. With more innings.

I might have voted for Mark Prior anyway. But Gagne is essentially the standard.

Sure, Craig Kimbrel's in the conversation. But he's not as valuable as Clayton Kershaw. And I suspect that Skip Caray and Tom Glavine and Joe Simpson would readily admit that if they worked for one of the other 29 teams.

For much more about the Braves and their stellar closer, please visit SB Nation's Talking Chop.

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