To start out his career, Craig Kimbrel absolutely annihilated his opposition with the Atlanta Braves. In five seasons, he appeared in 294 games and recorded an otherworldly 1.43 ERA with 14.8 strikeouts per nine, totaling 186 saves in the process.
Had he continued on that trajectory for the next decade, he'd almost undoubtedly be considered the greatest closer that the game has ever seen, but that unfortunately wasn't the case. With ups and downs along the way, including a stellar three-year stint in Boston and a forgettable, injury-filled debut season with the Chicago Cubs, the 33-year-old totaled 162 saves and a (still impressive) 2.93 ERA over those next seasons. 2021 had been something of a resurgence for Kimbrel, dominating opponents to the tune of a 0.49 ERA with the Cubs before a trade across town resulted in some struggles (6.57 ERA in 12.1 innings).
So where does this leave him in the all-time rankings? Among all pitchers with at least 400 innings of work and 200 relief appearances, his 2.16 ERA is the very best figure. He's also ninth on the all-time leaderboard in career saves, with 372. But no one is quite ready to say that he's the best closer of all time, considering he has so much time left to go and is hundreds of saves away from becoming the all-time leader in that statistic.
Well, not "no one." Ian Happ, as it turns out, thinks exactly that.
"...Kimbrel's the best to ever do it," Happ said on Jomboy Media's "The Compound" podcast. "He, at the end of his career, could go down as the best to ever do it."
One name immediately sprang to the minds of his co-hosts, former MLB players Zack Short and Dakota Mekkes — Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera — and they called his take "blasphemy," among other criticisms. But Happ stood firm.
"He's got half the appearances because he's halfway through his career. 372 saves versus 652, so obviously he's got a lot to go there, but Craig's only 32, 33? He's only 165 strikeouts away?" Happ argued. "And he's got a lower career WHIP. I'm just saying. I know that Mariano's total career is much better, and he's got 13 All-Stars and he's got a World Series MVP and he's a five-time Reliever of the Year and he's won a bunch of World Series. Mariano's total, cumulative is better.
"But I'm saying, where Craig is in his career, if he continues like he was with us this year, being that dominant for year to come, he could be the best closer of all time. And we're watching it and we need to appreciate things like that because they don't come around all the time."
Short and Mekkes attempted to butt in with a number of stern "Ian"s, but he does have a point that while Rivera has the better counting stats, Kimbrel is leading in ERA, WHIP, SO/9, FIP and other rate stats. However, both co-hosts did make the point that Rivera's postseason dominance is where he stands alone, and where Kimbrel doesn't even come close. Here are those numbers:
When you can use a stat as cool as this to end an argument — at least for now — it must be a pretty strong case.