Jason Mastrodonato began covering the Red Sox in 2011. This is the fifth in a series ranking the 10 best individual Red Sox seasons of the past 10 years.
In 2017, when the big screen above center field at Fenway Park went black and Ted Nugent's guitar started playing the introduction to * Stranglehold,” the Red Sox' game was over.
From his major league debut with the Atlanta Braves until July 15, 2017, Kimbrel never blew a save at Fenway, going a record 30 straight games with the streak intact.
And at most points during the 2017 season, he was one of the most dominant relievers baseball has ever seen.
He threw one of the best breaking balls anyone in a Red Sox uniform has thrown over the last decade. On May 7, when he struck out the left-handed-hitting Joe Mauer on a curve that started high and off the plate, then finished with a sharp break that barely clipped the edge of the corner.
Mauer, one of the most calm and collected stars in MLB for years, lost his mind on home plate umpire Dan Iassogna. The replay review showed what we all knew: Iassogna got it right.
Kimbrel K's both Mauer and Kepler with a runner on 3rd to end the 8th pic.twitter.com/5zt9P0OhAN
— Boston Sports Info (@bostonsportsinf) May 7, 2017
It was a truly ridiculous pitch.
Kimbrel's curveball became the story of 2017, perhaps the best year of Kimbrel's career.
He started the year by holding right-handed batters hitless in their first 47 at-bats until finally, on June 3, Mark Trumbo hit a single. It was Kimbrel's 23rd appearance of the year.
His fastball was averaging 99 mph, the hardest velocity of his career, but he was throwing his curve 31 percent of the time, highest in five seasons.
Because his fastball command was so good that year, his curve became even more dominant. Batters whiffed at the pitch more often (55%) than they made contact.
Craig Kimbrel's "Strike Three" pitch to Nomar Mazara last night pic.twitter.com/gQ1F12VlZo
— Pitcher List (@PitcherList) May 26, 2017
One day in early May, Kimbrel entered a 1-1 game in Milwaukee and struck out five of the six batters he faced. Three of them were on fastballs down the middle. Two were on breaking balls that just clipped the edge.
The ninth inning resulted in three strikeouts on nine pitches, Kimbrel's first career immaculate inning and just the third in Red Sox history (Pedro Martinez in 2002 and Clay Buchholz in 2012).
There were days that year when opposing teams would only see two pitchers: Chris Sale and Kimbrel.
* We're seeing two pitchers on our staff right now, both he and Sale, that are doing things that are very uncommon with the number of swings and misses,” former manager John Farrell said at the time. * With Kimbrel, you see the power he's generating, the swing and miss.”
The strikeouts were incredible. He was fanning about half the batters who stepped to the plate.
His numbers in May alone earned him Player of the Month honors when he collected seven saves, striking out 25 guys in 12 ⅔ innings while opponents went just 1-for-40 off him.
* I think he's been undoubtedly the best closer in baseball as long as he's been in the league,” Matt Barnes said that May. * Guy throws anywhere from 97-100 mph from down here — rises, moves — and then he has a breaking ball that comes right off of that. You guys are watching and having as much fun watching as I am.”
Kimbrel earned his sixth All-Star Game nod.
* I think I've slowed down a little bit,” Kimbrel said. * Kind of slowed the game down a little bit. I'm not letting it speed up on me as much. Just realizing that nothing can happen until I let go of the ball so I think a difference between me at 22 and me now, that would probably be the biggest difference.”
He made Aaron Judge look silly on a rising 98-mph heater that Judge hacked at and missed in a key 5-4 win over the Yankees in the Bronx on June 6, which would put the Sox one game behind the Yanks in the American League East.
“Honestly it's probably a little easier because he's taller,” Kimbrel said. * A high fastball, from what I'm used to throwing, probably looks a little sweeter to him coming in there.”
He struck out five Yankees that night.
But because of how incredible Kimbrel had been all season, the questions in Boston were constantly fired at Farrell: Why not use him more? Why not use him earlier in the game?
“Honestly, I would prefer to throw one inning two or three nights in a row,” Kimbrel explained that June. * I've got to do what I've got to do to help this team win. I think it's five times so far this year or six times I've come in in the eighth and helped the team win in that way. I think toward the end of the year we might see it a little bit more.”
The debate didn't end when Farrell was fired after the season.
One could argue that Sale shouldn't have stayed in the game to face lefty-masher Alex Bregman in the final game of the American League Division Series against the Astros. Bregman took Sale deep, Farrell replaced him with Kimbrel and Kimbrel allowed a run as the Sox lost, 5-4, and saw their season end.
Kimbrel's final numbers were among the best ever in a season by a closer: 5-0 with 35 saves in 69 innings with 126 strikeouts, 14 walks, a 1.43 ERA and 0.68 WHIP.
Catcher Sandy Leon on May 9:
* I feel like it's easy for him. He strikes out two guys like it's nothing.”
Outfielder Mookie Betts on May 11:
* He's going out there and guys are swinging and didn't look like they were really close.”
Sale on Oct. 9:
* He has as good of stuff, if not the best stuff, I've ever seen on a baseball field.”
Kimbrel finished by striking out 49.6 percent of the batters he faced.
His strikeout rate of 16.43 per nine innings stands as the third-highest of all-time by a reliever (min. 50 innings), behind only his own 16.66 mark in 2012 and Aroldis Chapman's 17.67 mark in 2014.
He struck out all three batters he faced in a perfect inning 10 times during the year, the second-most such innings in the majors behind only the Indians' Corey Kluber, who did it 11 times but over 203 ⅔ innings.
MORAL OF THE STORY
Some pitchers were built to record three outs. No more, no more less.
THE TOP 10 IN THE LAST 10 YEARS