FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Here’s a scary thought: We might not have seen the best of Craig Kimbrel yet.
The 27-year-old closer set a record for saves for a rookie with 46 in 2011. Since that season, he leads relievers with 224 saves and ranks second with a 1.70 ERA and 523 strikeouts. He was the fastest in history to 200 saves -- doing it in his 318th game. And using a fastball that has topped out at 101 mph and a spike-grip curve, he has averaged 14.61 strikeouts per nine innings for his career.
"Dirty C" is one nasty dude.
And now he takes his act, including the “Welcome to the Jungle” intro and his intimidating pre-pitch posture, to the Boston Red Sox bullpen, where he will be preceded by a collection of relievers who are nothing like him. Before him will be Koji Uehara, who has a fastball that tops out in the high-80s and relies on split-finger movement and deception. Before Uehara are Junichi Tazawa, with a mid-90s fastball and splitter, and new acquisition Carson Smith, a 6-foot-6 right-hander who throws from a three-quarters angle that he calls “funky.”
“It might definitely make my job easier,” Kimbrel said Friday, speaking to the media for the first time since reporting. “They’re going to see a lot of different angles before I get a chance to come in.
“The game of pitching is deception. It doesn’t really matter how hard you throw -- if you’re not deceptive, you’re going to get hit. It doesn’t matter if you’re throwing it sidearm or throwing it underhand. If you’re deceptive and you’re successful with that … having those guys in front of me is really going to make my game better as well.”
Kimbrel was acquired Nov. 13 in a big-splash deal by new Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski. To get the four-time All-Star closer, the Sox gave up four players -- outfielder Manuel Margot, infielders Javier Guerra and Carlos Asuaje and pitcher Logan Allen, but only Margot and Asuaje advanced as high as Double-A last season.
Kind of a no-brainer for a team that had been relying on an increasingly ineffective 40-year-old closer, even if Uehara said earlier this week that he plans to “keep pitching unless I am terrible and no team wants me.”
“Craig is a proven, elite closer,” Red Sox manager John Farrell said. “We’re looking forward to handing the ball to him in the ninth inning for us. I think he will thrive on the energy that is Fenway.”
And that was part of the equation in making this deal. Not everybody thrives on that Fenway energy. Some talented players wilt in it, because the market is demanding and, at times, suffocating.
Farrell said the organization researched Kimbrel’s personality to make sure he’d be right -- including extensive discussions with new vice president of baseball operations Frank Wren, who was general manager for the Atlanta Braves during Kimbrel’s time there.
“There’s a lot of background work that is done,” he said. “Obviously, Frank Wren, who had him as a general manager in Atlanta and knows him very well from the time he signed a pro contract over there. So there was first-hand experience and knowledge of Craig, and that’s part of the reason -- in addition to the talent that he is -- we felt like this is a very good fit to add to our bullpen.”
Which is not to say Kimbrel has experienced anything like it before. The intensity in Atlanta and San Diego is just not the same. Even spring trainings are intense with the Red Sox.
Kimbrel noticed that intensity at 10:44 a.m. Friday when he ran down to the bullpen mounds at the Fenway South complex for a 12-minute session and was greeted by a few hundred fans.
“I’ve never seen that many people watching a bullpen,” he said. “There’s usually nobody.”
He also marveled at “all the cameras” that were set up in a row around the interview bench behind jetBlue Park, and was told by a reporter, “We do this every day.”
As for that pre-pitch stance -- dubbed “Kimbreling” or “Spider Arms” -- well, let’s allow him to explain.
“In 2010, I got shoulder soreness, so I started to hang it in front of me when I leaned over,” he said. “It’s kind of evolved into what it was. I really didn’t realize it had gotten as far out as it had. I didn’t know I was a bat or sheep smuggler -- whatever everybody says I am before the pitch. I’m really not worried about that. If they’re focusing more about my stance than what pitch I’m throwing, that works for me.
“I can’t say I’m doing it to be intimidating, but if somebody else thinks it is, then that’s all fine.”