Tank Talks Sox: Craig Kimbrel is Unhittable

Even in strikeout era, closer's dominance stands out

David Tanklefsky
June 02, 2017 - 12:44 pm
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About six weeks ago I wrote a column entitled "What's Up With Craig Kimbrel?" The crux of it was that for a historically great closer, Kimbrel's appearances since coming to Boston were way too inconsistent. I didn't exactly bet against Kimbrel having a bounceback year, but I do have a vague recollection of comparing his worst outings to Heathcliff Slocumb

Allow me to now make the first of what I expect will be very many mea culpas within the space of this column. Craig Kimbrel is the surest thing in baseball...again. And I am a doofus.

To date, Kimbrel is leading all qualified relievers in WAR and WHIP. Opponents are whiffing on a league-high 23% of their swings against him. Then there are the strikeouts. Kimbrel has struck out a jaw-dropping 45 batters in 24 innings pitched. His strikeout to walk ratio went from a nearly career-low 2.77 last year to...15.00!

We are living in the strikeout era. Of the 22 pitchers to post K rates of 40% or better in a season, 18 of them have come in the past seven years (minimum 50 innings pitched). Even in that environment, Kimbrel stands out. His 54.2% strikeout rate this season would be a record. He's on pace to become the first pitcher ever to have two seasons with a K rate of better than 50%.

So why has Kimbrel been so dominant this season? His swing and miss rate is the highest of his career, yet his fastball velocity hasn't changed much; it's up less than half a mile per hour to 98.57.

Efficiency, control and unpredictability.

Batters aren't missing Kimbrel's fastball more this season because he's throwing it any faster. It's always been fast. They're missing it more because they know less about when it's coming.

Last year versus right handed hitters, Kimbrel threw his 4-seam fastball 78% of the time on the first pitch of an at bat and 86% when he was behind in the count. This year, those numbers are down to 70% and 83%, respectively. Overall, his fastball usage is down four points to 64%. No doubt he's still relying on his fastball, but he's planting just a little bit more doubt in hitters minds about when it's coming.

He's also pounded the strike zone. As Jeff Sullivan points out in this awesome piece for Fangraphs, Kimbrel is throwing way more pitches in the strike zone than ever before and inducing much less contact on pitches in the zone. The rate of fastballs in the strike zone has gone from just under 50% to 61% while the contact rate on fastballs in the zone has plummeted from 75 to 59%.

A stiffling heater mixed with a nasty curveball, improved control and more unpredictability equals utter dominance. So how do you hit this guy?

Slim chance #1: be a lefty. Righties are 0-for-45 against Kimbrel this year. Not a typo. Their slash line is .000/.063/.000. Lefties are better: .176/.200/.324. I'm sure Kimbrel is shaking in his boots.

Slim chance #2: be at home. Kimbrel's two runs allowed this year both came on the road, with batters hitting .083 against him there versus .070 at Fenway. 

If you're a righty at Fenway, save us all the time and just get up there, take three straight strikes and get back into the dugout so we can move this thing along. Sorry about that Slocumb comparison K-man.
 

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