At just 24 years old, Atlanta Braves closer Craig Kimbrel is about to represent the United States at the World Baseball Classic as one of the team’s premier relief pitchers. Kimbrel began his Major League career in 2010 with the Braves and has jumped out to an extremely impressive start, winning Rookie of the Year in his first full season in 2011, while leading the league in saves that season and again in 2012. In all, he has already amassed 89 saves and 283 strikeouts to go along with an almost untouchable 1.46 earned run average. We talked to Kimbrel about his young success, his preparation methods and what it means to him to compete for the country.
MF: What does it mean to you to be playing for your country in the World Baseball Classic?
CK: It means a lot. Playing a sport and being able to represent your country – that’s an amazing thing. I’ll also be playing with a group of guys I normally wouldn’t be able to play with on a regular basis, and you know, possibly having the chance to play three weeks on a team with that much talent while playing under [manager] Joe Torre and pitching coach Greg Maddux is just an amazing opportunity. I also grew up a Braves fan, so Greg Maddux being a pitching coach is a pretty cool thing for me. I’m just looking forward to the experience. I’ve heard really good things about it; that it’s something you’ll always remember. Obviously, we’re looking to go all the way this year and hopefully meet up with Japan, who won the first two WBC’s (in 2006 and 2009).
So you grew up rooting for the Braves, watching Greg Maddux in the 1990s. Now, you’ve been a lights out closer for the Braves for the first couple years of your career, and now Maddux will be your pitching coach for a few weeks.
Well yeah, I grew up a fan watching [Maddux] pitch. He was always someone I looked up to and tried to imitate. I wanted to pitch that way because he was one of the most dominant pitchers in the ‘90s. And you know, I’m looking forward to going out there and learning something. You can always get better.
In terms of pitching styles, you and Maddux are pretty different though. He was all about mixing his pitches and putting them exactly where he wanted. You can often just throw it 100 miles per hour and blow guys away. Are you looking to pick up any of his style?
One thing that I think that made him so good was, as a pitcher, you’re trying to trick the hitter. That’s what pitching is, and he was one of the best at it. He was able to throw a certain pitch in a certain spot on a certain count whenever he wanted to. He just had the mental game of pitching. He thought on the mound all the time on how to attack hitters. That’s something that I would want to learn from him – how he did it – and it’s something that I’m looking forward to.
What does your normal training regimen look like? How do you prepare for the season?
During the off-season, just after the season ends, I don’t pick up a ball until around January. All the time before then is just being in the weight room, conditioning and just getting my body back in shape. I do quite a bit of lower body because as a pitcher, I generate a lot of my power from my legs and my stride. Having a strong lower body helps you continue throughout the season and keeps you from wearing down. So, a lot of the heavyweight stuff I do is lower body and explosions. I do a lot of variations on explosive exercises because as a pitcher, you’re exploding towards the plate. Upper body, it’s more about staying strong but not doing too much weight, toeing that fine line between doing too much and too little.
As a closer, how does your preparation differ from other players, like starting pitchers or regular position players?
Oh, it’s definitely different. Starting pitchers’ regimens are different from relievers and position players are completely different from all pitchers. For pitchers, as relievers, we’re getting ready to go out there for one inning, maybe two or three max. Starters are going out there to prepare for seven innings. Once the season starts, it’s a lot easier for the starters to have a routine. They’re pitching once every five or six days, so it’s just easier to do the same thing day in and day out, whereas with relievers, you never know when you’re gonna pitch. So you have to be able to throw every day, sometimes you might have done lower body in the morning and have to pitch that night, or you did upper body in the morning and have to pitch that night. You just have to know what you can and can’t do – it’s a learning process of figuring out how to stay strong, not to do too much and still be able to perform during the game. That’s something you learn over time, and it changes as the season goes along.
When it comes to this season, how have you changed your preparation, being in the WBC? Are you looking to be sharper in the WBC than you may have been in spring training games over the past few years?
I just started my throwing program a few weeks earlier. You know, by the first of March, I’m usually pretty close to where I need to be, so I don’t think the World Baseball Classic is gonna put any more strain on me to have to get prepared faster or have to do more than my body can do at any given time. If anything, it’s going to prepare more for the start of the regular season. It’s gonna get me into those tough situations and high intensity games before the season even starts. In spring training, we’re all out there working on stuff, whereas in the WBC, I’m going out there to get outs. I’m out there doing my job in a high-pressure situation. I’m just looking forward to it, I don’t see anything negative about it.
Are there any exercises you rely on that readers can try at home?
As a pitcher, my back is kind of my foundation, so I work a lot on that. I do a lot of lat pull-downs and [scapula pull-downs]. I really need these exercises, because you can throw the ball as hard as you want, but if there’s nothing back there to slow it down, you’re gonna end up hurting yourself. So that’s one thing I focus on a lot.