ATLANTA -- After completing one of the most impressive seasons by a reliever, Craig Kimbrel spent time this past winter reflecting on his accomplishments with the understanding that he may not repeat last year's utter dominance.
"I went into the start of Spring Training and the beginning of this season telling myself not to set my expectations to where my numbers have to be where they were last year because that is pretty hard," Kimbrel said.
Kimbrel's statistics are not nearly as eye-popping as they were last year, when he struck out more than half of the batters he faced (116 of 231) and compiled a sparkling 1.01 ERA while converting 42 of his 45 save opportunities. Adding to the wonder of his season, the Braves right-hander did not allow a hit or issue a walk in 32 of his 61 appearances.
Kimbrel has allowed at least one opposing hitter to reach safely in 20 of his first 31 appearances this year. His 12.76 strikeouts per nine innings through this season's first 82 games doesn't approach the record-setting 16.66 ratio he produced last year. But a look at Kimbrel's statistics does not weaken the evidence that he currently stands as baseball's premier closer. He has converted 23 of 26 save opportunities, and his 1.48 ERA leads all Major League relievers who have compiled at least 10 save opportunities.
"I'm not looking at my numbers thinking, 'I need to get back to where I was last year,' because what I did last year was pretty amazing," Kimbrel said. "Sitting back and looking at it, it's kind of hard to believe. There was a lot of luck and good timing that goes into that kind of stuff."
All indications are that Kimbrel will earn his third consecutive All-Star selection when the rosters for this year's Midsummer Classic are announced on Saturday. The other NL closers who seem most likely to earn selections include Pittsburgh's Jason Grilli, who has notched a league-leading 27 saves, and St. Louis' Edward Mujica, who has successfully converted each of his 21 save opportunities.
There is no doubt Grilli has earned a roster spot as he has posted a 1.72 ERA and limited opponents to a .225 on-base percentage. Mujica's credentials include a 2.20 ERA and the Major League-leading .198 on-base percentage he has surrendered.
The .186 on-base percentage Kimbrel surrendered last year ranked as the third-best mark posted in a season by a reliever. The only two better marks were notched by Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley in 1990 (.172) and 1989 (.175).
Kimbrel ranks 21st among all qualified NL relievers with the .277 on-base percentage he has surrendered this year. But he has consistently escaped potentially damaging situations. The most impressive example occurred last week in Kansas City, where he ended a threat after the Royals put runners on the corners with no outs in the ninth inning of a one-run game.
"Maybe one or two closers in the game get out of that without giving up a run," Braves veteran catcher Gerald Laird said.
Even though Kimbrel did not allow a run in his first nine appearances this season, he did not necessarily feel he was where needed to be. He believes this was likely a result of his decision to begin throwing a little bit later this winter in anticipation of competing in the World Baseball Classic.
While Kimbrel made every attempt to be ready for the Classic, he did not want to push himself too hard, too early and pay the price down the stretch this year.
"Even though I had relatively good numbers in April, I didn't feel like I was 100 percent there," Kimbrel said. "I do now. I might switch it up next year and be a little more prepared coming into the season. They always say, 'You can't win a division in April, but you can put yourself behind.' I don't want to be that guy that puts us behind."
Kimbrel has allowed runs in just three games this year and each came during six appearances from April 24-May 7. The first two runs he allowed came on Dexter Fowler's two-out, game-tying double that Justin Upton misplayed in the ninth inning at Coors Field. David Wright's game-tying home run in the ninth inning on May 3 extended Kimbrel's rough stretch, which concluded when he allowed back-to-back solo home runs in the ninth inning of a May 7 loss in Cincinnati.
Kimbrel has returned to form since blowing those three save opportunities. He has not allowed a run in the 17 appearances that have followed. More encouraging to the Braves might be the fact that he has struck out 11 of the past 27 batters he has faced.
"I had a week or two that wasn't very pretty," Kimbrel said. "But ever since then, I feel things have been going the right way. I don't look at my numbers saying, 'This is where I need to be' or 'This is how many saves.' My job is to go out there and save games, and the more time I do that, the more times we're going to win."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com.