When Craig Kimbrel blew a 98-mile-per-hour fastball past Texas Rangers first baseman Ronald Guzmán on May 5, he picked up the 27th out of the game and the 300th save of his career. He became the fastest pitcher to reach that mark (in just his 330th save opportunity) and let out his trademark roar.
Kimbrel’s in the middle of another impressive season for the Red Sox. He hasn’t quite matched the absurd stats he put up last year (16.0 strikeouts per nine innings), but the closer is still doing what he does better than most anyone in baseball. As the Sox head into the All-Star break — with the best record in the majors in hand — Kimbrel has 30 saves and a 1.77 ERA to his name.
It won’t be much of a break for Kimbrel. He’ll be in Washington D.C. as a member of the American League side, his third straight selection in Boston and seventh in the past eight seasons. Included in that timeline is the five-year stretch from 2011-15 that compares favorably to the heights achieved by Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman at their peaks. Decent company, considering the awards for the AL and NL top relievers are named after those two save-artists.
Kimbrel wrapped up Boston’s last game before the All-Star break in his normal fashion. Three Blue Jays made their way to home plate in the ninth inning. The first managed to fly out to center. The second struck out swinging. And the third took Kimbrel to a full count, then watched a four-seam fastball land safely in Sandy Leon’s mitt for strike three.
With that performance in recent memory, here’s how Kimbrel stacks up against the best closers in Red Sox history:
In seven years in Boston, Jonathan Papelbon became the team’s all-time leader in saves (219) — as well as an honorary member of the Dropkick Murphys. He made the All-Star team every year from 2006-09, striking out 312 batters over that stretch as the Red Sox won a World Series and he picked up a Delivery Man of the Year award.
During the World Series in 2007, Papelbon showed up and showed the Colorado lineup out. He appeared in three games, earning a save in each, and did not allow an run as the Sox swept the Rockies. His 2.33 ERA in Boston falls short of Kimbrel’s 2.16 mark with the Sox, as does his strikeouts per nine rate (10.7 vs. 15.0), but Papelbon walked batters less frequently.
Papelbon moved on to the Philadelphia Phillies in 2011, where he again topped the organization’s all-time saves leaderboard, and Washington Nationals, with whom he had a tumultuous tenure that ended in 2016.
Beyond the comparisons, there’s a mutual respect between the pair. When Kimbrel joined the Sox, Papelbon described him as “a younger version of me” — a comparison Kimbrel surely appreciated, given that he has studied Papelbon and tried to replicate his aggressiveness.
“He’s always been a guy who’s going to go after you, and you’ve got to respect that,” Kimbrel said in 2016.
Before there was Bill Buckner — like, minutes before — there was Bob Stanley. The Red Sox reliever gave up the tying run on a wild pitch (catcher Rich Gedman reached for the ball, “but not far enough”) in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, then Buckner’s error brought the winner home for the New York Mets. However, that moment shouldn’t overshadow a 13-year career in Boston that landed him in the Red Sox Hall of Fame.
Stanley held the top spot on the Sox’ saves chart for two decades until Papelbon came along. While that record fell, he still stands alone for most games played (637) and finished (377). Stanley was as versatile as they come on the mound and became one of the few pitchers to ever hit triple-digits in both wins and saves.
The “Stanley Steamer” made two All-Star games, first as a starter with a 16-12 record in 1979 and again in 1983 as a reliever after finishing the season with 30 saves. Although the comparison isn’t perfect, due to their different usage, Stanley did not put batters away at the same rate as Kimbrel does. He struck out 3.7 per nine innings, while Kimbrel is averaging 15.0 K’s in that time.
Before Koji Uehara came to the U.S., he twice won the Sawamura Award — Japan’s version of the Cy Young. He made the move to the states when he was 34 years old and his major-league career started slowly. Uehara would wait seven years for a season that truly matched his heights in Japan. But when it came, what a year it was.
Uehara didn’t start the 2013 season as the Red Sox’ closer, but he finished it a World Series champion and the ALCS MVP. At one point during the regular season, he retired 37 straight hitters. Uehara entered the playoffs with a 1.09 ERA, 101 strikeouts, and just nine walks. Once the postseason kicked off, he posted 16 strikeouts and zero walks in 13 2/3 innings.
The righthander continued that success the next season, earning an All-Star nod with 29 saves and an 11.2 SO/9 rate to his name. Over the course of his four years in Boston, he had a 0.81 WHIP — a few ticks better than Kimbrel’s .87 mark in a Red Sox uniform. Uehara comes within a whisker of Kimbrel’s ERA (2.19 vs. 2.16) and gets the nod in the walks per nine category, while Kimbrel has picked up more saves and the better strikeout rate.
If Stanley is going to get some of the blame for Buckner’s error, than Keith Foulke deserves credit for making Curt Schilling’s famous bloody sock game possible.
Foulke carried the Sox in Games 4 through 6 of the ALCS against the Yankees, firing 100 combined pitches on three consecutive nights. In Game 4 alone, he threw 50 pitches over 2 2/3 innings as the Sox launched their comeback. Then, in the World Series, Foulke closed out every game. He earned the victory in the opener and a save in the decider, finishing the series with eight strikeouts over five innings.
If Chad Finn could send any Red Sox closer out to the mound with the game on the line, Foulke is getting the call.
“He got arguably the biggest outs in contemporary Red Sox history, over the final four games of the 2004 ALCS and the four-game sweep in the World Series,” Finn wrote. “He was utterly fearless and should have been the ’04 World Series MVP. With everything on the line, I want the ball in his hand.”
In 53 games for the Red Sox over three seasons, Foulke earned 47 games. His 3.73 ERA and 7.5 strike outs per nine rate in Boston don’t touch Kimbrel statisically, but he proved himself equal to the most demanding of moments.
Fifteen wins is an impressive total for a starting pitcher. Dick Radatz, aka “The Monster,” did so twice — as a reliever. From 1962 to 1964, Radatz was an absolute force out of the Sox bullpen. His 1964 mark for strikeouts in a season (181) still stands as the most recorded by a reliever in the major leagues.
Radatz checked in at 6-feet-6 and 230 pounds. He spent the first four years of his career in Boston, averaging two innings per appearance as part of an outrageous workload. By the time he left the Sox in 1966, Radatz had won two All-Star awards — and faced 2,208 batters. He never reached those heights again and his career was over four years later.
However, before the orbit came back to earth, Radatz overpowered hitters. He was the first pitcher in MLB history to post consecutive 25-save seasons — beginning with his rookie year — which prompted Yankees manager Ralph Houk to say, “For two seasons, I’ve never seen a better pitcher.”
Tom Gordon was the Red Sox’ starter on Opening Day in 1997. By the end of the following season, “Flash” had set the club’s single-season record for saves (46). Forty-three of those saves came in consecutive appearances, a streak he would carry over into 1999 and extend to 54 saves in a row.
The righthander’s conversion from starter to reliever in Boston was an enormously fruitful one as he helped Pedro Martinez lay claim to 42 wins across 1998-99. Gordon spent four of his 21 major-league seasons with the Red Sox. Between his various roles, he concluded his career with 138 wins and 158 saves to his name.
While he had success at other points for eight different clubs, that 1998 season was the highlight of his time as a closer. He had a 2.72 ERA on top of those 46 saves, along with 8.8 strike-outs per nine — good enough for his first of three All-Star awards. His teammate on that 92-win squad, Dennis Eckersley, provided a scouting report on Gordon.
“You want to know why he’s been good?” said Eckersley at the time. “Two reasons: a 95-mile-per-hour fastball and a hook from hell.”