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Braves’ Kimbrel finding ways to improve

Braves closer Craig Kimbrel had 50 saves and an ERA of 1.23 entering Saturday’s game against the Phillies. (Reuters)

Braves closer Craig Kimbrel had 50 saves and an ERA of 1.23 entering Saturday’s game against the Phillies. (Reuters)

ATLANTA — Braves closer Craig Kimbrel was coming off the kind of season that’s hard to touch.

He spent 2012 exploring statistical reaches where no pitcher in the modern era had ventured, with his 16.7 strikeouts per nine innings and a .126 opponents’ batting average. In essence, Kimbrel struck out more than every other batter he faced, while converting 42 of 45 saves.

So where do you go from there?

Not to worry. A guy who throws 99 mph is used to not having much higher to aim for.

“That’s all cool,” Kimbrel said of his 2012 feats. “But that’s not going to help me today.”

In a job where short memories reign, Kimbrel has made the most of his in 2013. He’s continued to look forward, and in the process he actually has been — in some ways — better. Kimbrel has converted a career-high 50 saves, including at one point a franchise-record 37 consecutive.

Kimbrel allowed only two runs in 47 1/3 innings (0.38 ERA) over the streak that ended Sept. 17.

He became the first pitcher in major league history to record 40 or more saves in three consecutive seasons, and those happened to be his first three full seasons in the majors. The fact that Kimbrel has blown only 14 saves in that time gives him the third-highest save percentage in history at 90.7 percent (136 of 150 saves), behind Eric Gagne (91.7, 187 of 204) and John Smoltz (91.1, 154 of 169).

“He’s transformed that role,” Smoltz said. “Nobody does it anymore, but you could bring him in with the bases loaded and have a legitimate chance of getting out of it. And that’s just not something fair to say about anybody.”

Smoltz watched Kimbrel pitch in person in Washington in early August when he was there broadcasting for MLB Network. So did another former Braves closer, Billy Wagner, who was a mentor to Kimbrel during his first several stints in the majors in 2010.

Wagner, who lives 125 miles southwest of Washington in Crozet, Va., watched from the stands at Nationals Park with two of his sons on a night when Kimbrel actually struggled, by his standards. Wagner was holding his breath with every pitch as Kimbrel squirmed out of a bases-loaded jam in the series finale, throwing 36 pitches.

“I just love how he competes,” Wagner said. “It’s going to be fun to watch his journey and see how successful he will go on to be and the records he will break.”

The next step for Kimbrel, Smoltz figured, was attacking hitters.

“It’s easier said than done, but when he starts getting a lot of outs on his fastball, he’s just going to have them eating out of his hand,” Smoltz said. “Because he can strike anybody out whenever he wants. His first couple years, his fastball got him in trouble; he couldn’t command it. Now he commands it. Now guys are like ‘Shoot, I can’t get to two strikes, let me (swing.)’ He’ll get a lot of quick outs.”

Smoltz made that observation early in that Washington series Aug. 5-7. After the 36-pitch outing, Kimbrel was told about Smoltz’s comments. In his next two save chances, Kimbrel needed only nine and seven pitches to convert, respectively.

“Guys are swinging a lot more this year,” Kimbrel said. “But I’m not complaining because I throw less pitches.”

In his first 46 appearances through that game in Washington, Kimbrel has averaged 16.2 pitches per outing. In the 15 appearances after it — including a four-out save — — he averaged only 12.7.

Either Kimbrel is a quick study or he simply responds when somebody challenges him.

“You ask that guy if he could fly, he’d give you an answer where he’s pretty sure he could figure out a way to do it,” said Braves left-hander Eric O’Flaherty, who set up for Kimbrel for his first three-plus years before an elbow injury in May. “He thinks he can do anything, and he’ll try to do anything. He definitely wants to be the best at everything, too. He’s just got that winners’ mentality where he’s not going to settle for anything but being the best. With his stuff, it’s a good combination.”

The stuff includes a fastball in the upper 90s and a breaking ball that moves like a curveball, but comes out hard like a slider.

“That might be the one guy that I cannot catch without knowing what’s coming,” Braves bullpen coach Eddie Perez said. “It might be the only one.”

As a player, Perez was one of the game’s top defensive catchers, with soft, quick hands. He caught the likes of Mark Wohlers and Smoltz, as well as Wagner and now Kimbrel in the bullpen.

Perez said Wohlers might have had more pure velocity on his fastball, “He threw a couple 102, 103, 104,” but he couldn’t command it like Kimbrel.

“Wohlers was tough to go in and out (with),” Perez said. “Kimbrel has control.”

One thing Perez thinks Kimbrel has now, even on Wagner, who hit triple-digits with his fastball in his younger days and retired fifth all-time with 422 saves, is an optimism that reads confidence.

“When Billy Wagner was a closer, I would go ‘Hey it’s the third, fourth, and fifth hitters coming up,” Perez said. “He’d go ‘Jesus, why do those guys wait for me?’ I’d say ‘Well, the best for the best.’ But Kimbrel’s like ‘Yeah, I got it.’ He does it to everybody. It doesn’t matter who’s coming up. He likes the competition.”

His confidence can’t be measured in statistics, modern era or otherwise, but based on what Perez sees and hears, that’s an area where Kimbrel has continued to improve this season.

“He’s not nervous anymore,” Perez said. “Every time I tell him you get the 2, 3, 4 hitters. He goes ‘I know. I got ‘em.’”

Braves right-hander Kris Medlen likes to make fun of Kimbrel’s delivery, complete with right arm dangle, bend at the waist and glare in as he picks up the sign.

“I don’t think he would be doing this,” Medlen said, leaning forward in his chair, dangling his right arm. “If he was throwing 89 mph and a little change-up like myself. That doesn’t go.”

Medlen demonstrates how Kimbrel used to show hitters the ball, up by his right ear, in the minor leagues, as he started his motion, before an umpire told him it was a balk and he changed it.

Medlen will roll his eyes when explaining how Kimbrel — who keeps a journal on every hitter he faces, every pitch he throws — likes to speak up at scouting meetings about what to throw hitters when.

“We just tell him to shut up,” Medlen said. “Because let’s be honest, he doesn’t have to locate like I do or other guys do.”

But Medlen will get serious long enough to credit Kimbrel for being the most valuable player on a Braves team that has seen Freddie Freeman drive in 100 runs, Andrelton Simmons play some of the best defense in the majors, and Brian McCann to have another All-Star, 20-homer season behind the plate.

“For us to be able to go to him every single time when we need a scoreless inning and him giving it to us every time,” said Medlen, a former reliever himself. “That’s just as valuable as somebody else doing anything.”