Tough choice: Kimbrel vs. Smoltz is too close to call
Current Braves closer has much in common with former star Atlanta hurler
OK, you're up by one run in the bottom of the ninth in Game 7 of the World Series and you have to choose a closer. You can go with John Smoltz in his prime or the still-evolving Craig Kimbrel, which isn't exactly a bad thing, unless you're standing 60 feet, six inches from either guy.
What's your answer?
Here's mine: I don't know.
This is such a toss-up. I mean, how did the Braves get so lucky to have two of baseball's most stifling closers in history within such a short timeframe? Kimbrel is in his fourth year of terrorizing hitters. Just a decade ago, Smoltz did the same, and the whole process for this likely future Baseball Hall of Famer often was quick, flawless and ruthless. He studied his catcher for a sign that called for a fastball more often than not. Then he delivered blur after blur from his right arm, along the way to remaining the best among his peers. Sounds like Kimbrel. In fact, Kimbrel is Smoltz.
As for the differences, Smoltz spent his 20 seasons with the Braves through 2008 making the unusual journey from starting pitcher to reliever to starting pitcher again. Kimbrel was groomed only as a closer before his brilliant rookie season of '11. Here's another difference, especially around Atlanta, where the Southeastern Conference is huge: Kimbrel bleeds Crimson Tide as an Alabama native, but Smoltz remains true to his northern roots near East Lansing, Mich., by cheering all things Michigan State.
Kimbrel smiled, adding, "John's also a lot bigger and taller than I am (6-foot-3 to 5-foot-11), so there's another difference."
As for the similarities, there are a couple of striking ones, especially since Smoltz was the Braves' full-time closer for three seasons, and prior to this year, Kimbrel held that role for the same length of time. They both averaged nearly the same amount of saves during that window -- 48 for Smoltz to Kimbrel's 46. And the key pitch for both closers, you ask? That blur -- otherwise known as a four-seam fastball that reaches nearly 100 mph on a consistent basis.
Which makes you wonder: fish or chicken? Ginger or Mary Ann? The tougher call is Kimbrel vs. Smoltz.
"As pitchers, we're a lot alike, but we're also a lot different," said Kimbrel, shrugging while thinking. He prompted this comparison when he recently passed Smoltz's Braves record of 154 career saves. In fact, Kimbrel might double that total.
Despite Kimbrel leading the National League in saves for each of his previous three years in the big leagues (including an MLB-best 50 last year), he hasn't digressed. Kimbrel entered Tuesday's action with 18 saves, a 1.82 ERA and a ridiculous 45 strikeouts in 24 2/3 innings pitched.
You've guessed it: Smoltz used to compile similar numbers, which triggered thoughts of another similarity between the two.
"In the closer's role, you have to be competitive," Kimbrel said. "You have to want to go out there and compete every single day. If you ask anybody, they'll tell you that John is a complete competitor, and it doesn't matter if you're on the ball field or if you're playing a game of cards. John wants to win, and I'm kind of the same way. I like to compete. If I'm going to put my effort toward something, it's going to be to the fullest."
But back to a differences.
When Smoltz took the mound, he rubbed the ball a little, moved into his stretch without much drama and delivered smoke toward the plate. The ending for Kimbrel is the same as that for Smoltz, but the beginning is different -- way different. Kimbrel toes the rubber before bending so far forward, with his right hand dangling away from his body, that you get the feeling he's a linebacker preparing for a blitz.
Whatever the case, it is intimidating to the hitter.
It also is motivational for Kimbrel, who developed much of his drive as a pitcher long before he left Wallace State Community College in Hanceville, Ala., for the Braves as a third-round Draft pick in 2008. He grew up in Huntsville, Ala., during the 1990s, studying the relentless ways of Smoltz on those Braves teams that set the foundation for a record 14 consecutive division titles.
That said, Kimbrel got a mighty push toward becoming the perennial All-Star that he is now under the mentorship of Billy Wagner, the famed closer who made a pitstop with the Braves for the 2010 season.
This isn't to say Kimbrel doesn't huddle with the other guy.
"John is always around the clubhouse, because he does a lot of commentating [for Braves local television and MLB Network], so he's available," Kimbrel said. "I talked to him a little bit when we were in Washington. We were talking about preparation. We were talking about getting up, not throwing too many pitches in the bullpen, and just saving yourself. You're not just getting ready for tonight's game, but for tomorrow's game and the game after that, too.
"John is one of those guys that if you have a question, he is quick to give you an answer, and he always will help you out any way he can."
Kimbrel doesn't need much help at the moment.
That's because he mostly is Smoltz.
Terence Moore is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.