Wagner happy to mentor young Kimbrel
Outgoing Braves closer takes rookie reliever under his wing
ATLANTA -- Still somewhat raw and inexperienced, Craig Kimbrel might benefit from the opportunity to compile more innings at the Minor League level. But while he is at the Major League level, the Braves right-handed reliever will have the opportunity to benefit from the tutoring that Billy Wagner is more than willing to provide.
"He's easy to coach," Wagner said. "It's just like looking at myself in the mirror. When I see him, I think, 'I know exactly what you're feeling. I know exactly what you're thinking.' His mechanics and mine are so similar to the point, that he is exactly a right-handed Billy Wagner."
Kimbrel arrived at his first Major League Spring Training this year with the label of being a right-handed version of Wagner. Three months later, the hard-throwing, 21-year-old right-hander has impressed enough to provide reason to wonder if he could be just a year or two away from assuming the closer's role that Wagner is handling for the Braves this season.
"It's yet to be determined whether he's going to be a setup man or a closer," Wagner said. "He has closer stuff, but does he have that forgetful mind that will allow him to go out there after blowing two saves in a row? Can he handle all the criticism and the hype?"
With just 14 career appearances above the Class A Minor League level before this season, Kimbrel made a quick rise to the Majors after showing good control for Triple-A Gwinnett in April. But while making his third career Major League appearance on Saturday night, the young reliever provided the reminder that he is still in the midst of the learning process.
During Saturday's eighth inning against the D-backs, Kimbrel threw just 15 of his 36 pitches for strikes and issued three walks. The five walks he has issued in 2 1/3 innings for Atlanta equal the total he issued in 15 innings with Gwinnett this year.
"I walked in there last night after he had his inning and said, 'Dude, I've been there, done that,'" Wagner said. "I said, 'Now you've just got to learn from it, because all that was, was just trying to do so much.' It was his first time pitching in Atlanta and he had like a hundred people from his hometown here. He wants to do well and wants to please everybody."
Looking back on his early days with the Astros, Wagner wasn't surrounded by veteran relievers who were willing to provide the kind of guidance he wants to continue giving Kimbrel.
"You had Todd Jones and John Hudek, and neither one of them ever said anything to me," Wagner said. "They were trying to keep their job. I kind of got the closer's job when Jones got hurt. There was no tutor or anyone saying, 'This is how you do it or this is what you should expect.' It was just, 'Go do it,' and that was it. I kind of learned with trial and error."
Ultimately, Kimbrel will also have to learn from tough outings similar to the ones he experienced on Saturday. But before retiring at the end of this year and heading to his farm in Virginia, Wagner would like to give his potential successor some of the guidance that he didn't have when he was being introduced to the tough responsibilities of a Major League reliever.
"What he's got to get used to is not trying to impress so much," Wagner said. "That's what every kid does. They want to come in and show that they belong. It really doesn't happen like that. It really happens by going out there and competing."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.