Brett Cecil and Craig Kimbrel: A Record’s Retrospective

Brett Cecil’s record-tying run of 38 appearances without conceding an earned run ended on April 5th against Tampa Bay. When he took over for Aaron Sanchez in the bottom of the 8th, Twitter came alive with mentions of the lockdown lefty breaking the tie and cementing a place all his own in baseball history. Unfortunately, the party was crashed by the Rays and then we were all afforded the opportunity to either be angry or feign outrage over Jose Bautista’s slide in the top of the ninth.

While the events of the evening pushed Cecil’s unfortunate outing to the back burner, his dominant run is something that deserves recognition. Since last Father’s Day, Cecil has been nothing short of lights out. During the team’s run to the playoffs he was called on night after night to navigate through the dangerous left handed bats of the AL East. In thinking about how great Cecil has been for the Jays, I thought it’d be fun to see how Cecil’s efforts compare to the 38 appearances from Craig Kimbrel that previously held the record. Thankfully, Kimbrel set the record in 2011, so we still have some mental frame of reference for many of the batters he faced even before we look at some of their statistics.

I jumped into these game logs with an open mind, curious about what I might find, and what odd names from the past would pop up (Ryan Spilborghs!). I wasn’t aiming to find which run was ‘more impressive’, per se, but I was interested to see how the two stacked up, especially given their different roles. Obviously players improve or decline with time, so common batter comparisons aren’t ideal, especially across as few plate appearances as we’re talking here. My big takeaways were that both of these guys were absolutely fantastic, and Craig Kimbrel’s 2011 was really, really good. With that said, let’s dive in.

Hop into the wayback machine. It’s June 11, 2011. Adele is at the top of the charts. A J.J. Abrams movie is the top grossing film of the day. I swear, it’s really 2011. Things are different. The Atlanta Braves are 37-28 and trailing the Phillies by two games for the NL East lead. See? I told you. That day, Craig Kimbrel took the mound at Minute Maid Park in the bottom of the 10th. He was gifted a four run lead thanks to a three run homer from Brian McCann and an Eric Hinske single that cashed in Chipper Jones. In Kimbrel’s inning of work, he surrendered a run on back to back doubles from Hunter Pence and Carlos Lee. The next time he’d give up a run, it’d be against the Cardinals on September 9th. Skip Schumaker, Rafael Furcal, Ryan Theriot, and Albert Pujols sandwiched two hits around two walks to tie the game in the bottom of the 9th. All told, Kimbrel would cut through 37.2 innings of scoreless baseball, dispatching 104 different players.

Skip ahead to Father’s Day, 2015. Chris Davis, Nolan Reimold, Ryan Flaherty, and J.J. Hardy would all reach base against Brett Cecil and come around to score, turning a 9-9 tie into the game’s 9-13 final score. Cecil would go on to dominate until the third game of the next season, where Logan Forsythe would ruin everything. Cecil’s 38 appearances accounted for 32.2 scoreless innings and 81 different batters.



Cecil’s run was absolutely phenomenal, conceding an opponent average of 0.143, besting his career average (as a reliever) by over 30 points. Cecil did his best to keep runners out of scoring position, surrendering only five extra base hits. Perhaps most impressive is the fact that Cecil walked only two batters on his own accord, while striking out 46.

For as good as Cecil was, Kimbrel may have been even better in 2011. Opposing batters hit only .102 against him, with all 14 hits against coming as singles. Kimbrel’s whopping 67 strikeouts certainly help soothe the pain of 11 walks. Both pitchers featured WHIPs well under 1.00, though we should note that excluding Cecil’s two intentional walks drops his WHIP all the way down to .582.


Given Cecil’s role as a setup man, he is often called upon to face specific batters, particularly top left handed bats. The Maryland native proved invaluable against lefty-heavy teams like the Yankees, where Cecil was also used to flip switch hitters like Carlos Beltran and Chase Headley to the right side of the dish. Only three of his appearances were against one batter, coming against two switch hitters and one lefty (Beltran, Victor Martinez and Eric Hosmer). This meaning that Cecil was typically counted on to take care of dangerous lefties, while also being tasked with defeating any right handed batters or switch hitters between them.

In contrast, Kimbrel appeared almost exclusively in save situations, so it makes sense that his mix of batter handedness features far more discrepancy than Cecil’s. However, it was a little surprising that Kimbrel didn’t see more left handed pinch hitters, given that he pitched in the NL at the time. While his left/right splits are similar, lefties have an OPS of .481 against Kimbrel while righties post a .454 mark.

Appearance Length and Rest


Craig Kimbrel was definitely, and unsurprisingly, ‘Managed To The Save’. Every one of his appearances came in the 9th inning or later, and only one was not a three out appearance. Given the difference in roles, it’s no shock that Kimbrel faced more batters and threw more pitches per appearance than Cecil, who was occasionally used to retire only one or two batters. Kimbrel’s strict role as closer also fiddled with his rest patterns. For the most part, if the Braves worked into a save situation, Kimbrel got the ball. 34 of his 38 outings came on three days or fewer of rest, and 27 on either zero or one day(s) of rest. Of the four well-rested occasions, two involved Kimbrel working in non-save situations to get some work in, while a third came following the All-Star break.

Cecil, meanwhile, had six such occasions of more than three days rest between outings, but only 18 came on zero or one day(s) of rest. Of the extended rest periods, one included the All-Star break and another represented the offseason between 2015 and 2016. For the sake of calculating average rest, I credited Cecil with one rest day on his first appearance of 2016, as his first appearance came during the Jays’ second game of the year. Doing so drops his average rest to 1.8 days, whereas counting the 99 rest days given to him by Baseball Reference bumps his number up to a misleading 4.4 days.

Strikes and Batted Balls


Given Kimbrel’s insane strikeout totals and seven additional walks, the numbers in the table above pan out as we expect. Kimbrel threw more pitches and strikes per batter while garnering more of his strikes as umpire calls or swings and misses. A higher percentage of Cecil’s pitches were strikes thanks to higher contact rates. Both pitchers were supremely effective, with Kimbrel using his electric stuff to rack up strikeouts.

As for the balls that were put in play, Cecil’s sinker and devastating curveball helped him generate a ton of ground balls. He limited fly balls and pop ups, but did give up 18 line drives (likely a major factor in the five extra base hits he surrendered). Luckily for him, those grounders and line drives more likely than not found the gloves of excellent defenders that the Blue Jays employed across the diamond.

Kimbrel’s high fly ball totals are no surprise, given that both his four seam fastball and knuckle curve result in more fly balls than comparable offerings from other pitchers. His fastball is even classified as an “extreme fly ball pitch” by Brooks Baseball.

Batter Frequency

With repertoire and basic numbers established, I wanted to examine who each pitcher was dealing with. Keep in mind that Cecil was often summoned to take care of a specific player rather than handle a fixed inning. Given Kimbrel’s incredible strikeout numbers, I also wanted to see how many times he had to face the same batter. It stands to reason that the more plate appearances a hitter has against you, the more difficult it will be to strike him out, and someone facing Kimbrel only once is looking at long odds for success.


As it turns out, Cecil faced fewer players than Kimbrel but was called on to retire the same player more often. In a moment we’ll look at which batters each pitcher faced the most often during their runs (place your guesses now!) and if they worked against any common opponents. However, for the time being I wanted to look at the spots in the order that each pitcher was tasked with retiring. As you can see above, the average 1st batter each man faced occupied the 4th spot in their teams’ lineups, with the most recurrent opponent being the leadoff guy.



Looking at the beginning of each appearance, we can see that Cecil did much of his work staring down the barrel of a lineup’s top half even if he was only called upon for one or two outs, whereas Kimbrel often dodged the 4-5-6 guys and worked primarily from the top and bottom of the order. That’s not something you can necessarily take as a knock against Kimbrel; he had no control over who he would face and sat almost everyone down regardless of spot in the order. Kimbrel’s presence in the NL may also prove for more difficult assignments since the 8th or 9th spot was often occupied by a pinch hitter. Among the pinch hitters Kimbrel saw were Jonny Gomes, Jose Reyes, Andre Ethier and Paul Goldschmidt.

Frequent Opponents

Armed with a general sense of the type of hitters each pitcher had to handle, we can take a look at which particular players appeared the most often and how Cecil and Kimbrel fared against any common opponents. A reminder that the data only represents 38 appearances, so we’ll try and avoid any kinds of major conclusions about a particular matchup or player. I broke down the number of times each unique batter was faced, and set three plate appearances as the cut-off for a ‘frequent opponent’. Our earlier claims about Cecil’s usage against select batters is reinforced here, as he faced seven batters four or more times, whereas Kimbrel never saw anyone more than thrice.


Here’s how each of those opponents fared while noting their oWAR, OPS and wRC+ for either 2011 or 2015, depending on the pitcher, to see the caliber of player that Cecil and Kimbrel faced most often:


Both the average and the median of batter statistics are included above so as not to have extremely low numbers from Sandoval, Ellis and Herrera misrepresent the quality of hitter that each pitcher faced. From the tables above, I’d conclude that it’s a pretty even set of batters overall, with Kimbrel’s group being top heavy and Cecil’s group being more balanced. If forced to pick a more impressive group, I’d have to give the edge to Brett Cecil. Kimbrel absolutely shredded through the worst of his frequent opponents, whereas Cecil dominated David Ortiz and Alex Rodriguez, but surrendered a hit to each of his other frequent batters.

With that settled, five common batters surfaced. Unfortunately, if unsurprisingly, Cecil and Kimbrel didn’t share any common opponents who were also among both of their most frequent:


We see a little bit of the same pattern that was present in the frequent opponent tables; metrics show Kimbrel’s group as top heavy with two huge drags while Cecil has a more well-rounded collection. Again, I’d have to give the edge to Cecil. The idea that Kimbrel’s strikeout ability would make for a difficult first few at bats was also reinforced among the common opponents, with every out Kimbrel recorded coming by way of the K.

Situational Performance

Lastly, we’ll look at how the pitchers performed in terms of situational measures, particularly Average Leverage Index (aLI). You can read more about aLI here, but, in essence, it acts as a measure of how critical a situation is measured by the possible swing in Win Expectancy. Before we get into the numbers, it needs to be noted that aLI weights events in later innings as more critical than similar situations that occur earlier in the game. For example, Cecil pitching a clean 7th inning with a 2 run lead gives him an aLI of 0.91, while the same situation occurring in the 9th for Kimbrel nets 0.98 aLI.


Given the fact that Kimbrel never took the mound earlier than the 9th inning, it makes sense that he appears in higher leverage spots. The results aren’t surprising, though Cecil’s appearance with two on and none out in the bottom of the 8th (aLI of 5.1) on  September 12th was the highest leverage situation faced by either player.

The numbers above paint Kimbrel as the better reliever, which I’m not going to argue (as much as it pains me to say), but the scales are tilted in his favor thanks in part to his job description.

Additional Notes

  • Both pitchers saw their streaks end on outings with zero rest days
  • Both streaks ended with two earned runs against, blown saves and team losses
  • Cecil gave up two unearned runs during his streak, thanks to errors from Brett himself and Darwin Barney
  • Kimbrel faced the Jays twice during his streak, blowing away Corey Patterson, Jose Bautista and Adam Lind with three strikeouts on June 20th, and getting a trio of fly balls from Aaron Hill, Edwin Encarnacion and John McDonald on the 22nd

Closing Thoughts

Both of these pitchers were lights out, shutdown, and all adjectives in between. The strikeout data and leverage indicators point to Kimbrel as being more effective at casting hitters aside while doing so in the clutch, while Cecil probably gets the nod in terms of facing more difficult hitters repeatedly. Comparing a setup guy to a closer will always be a little bit apples to oranges, and as such it’s not fair to say whether one was unequivocally better than the other. However, each pitcher was able to go on a historic run with different methods and responsibilities, and for now they’re in the record book side by side. As of this writing, Cecil has started a new streak and is only 35 more appearances away from securing a spot all his own. Fingers crossed.

Lead Photo: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

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