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Tank Talks Sox: What's Up With Craig Kimbrel?

Why is a historically great closer making us all feel so squeamish?

David Tanklefsky
April 21, 2017 - 12:04 pm

Seriously. What’s up with this guy?

Craig Kimbrel is the only major league pitcher in the last 100 years to post an ERA below 1.90 with a minimum of 400 career innings pitched. The only guy. He has the highest strike out/nine innings rate in baseball history at a meteoric 14.5. He led his league in saves for four straight years and is the fastest closer in history to reach 200 saves. By age 25, he had twice posted lower ERAs in a season than Mariano Rivera ever did in his career.

And yet, for a guy with that kind of resume, things always feel a little uncomfortable when he comes into a tight game. Every once in a while, like when he blew a save Thursday afternoon and handed Chris Sale a no-decision after one of the most dominant performances from a Red Sox starter since Pedro Martinez, there's something downright Heathcliff Slocumb-y about the guy.

Well for starters, the above numbers are not representative of how good Craig Kimbrel is right now. They’re merely an indicator of how good he can be.

Kimbrel went from historically dominant in Atlanta to merely good in his one season with the Padres to downright pedestrian last year with Boston. In his first year with the Red Sox, Kimbrel posted the highest ERA of his career and had the fewest strikeouts, innings pitched and saves since his rookie season in 2010. He posted a scary looking fly ball rate of 48%, while his ground ball rate plummeted from 46% to 29%.

Closing is a notoriously fickle business. The grave sites of the Eric Gagne’s and Bobby Thigpen’s of the world will one day read something like: “A closer’s life is sweet, but short for certain.” Given the downward trend of his last two seasons, it’s possible we’ve seen the best of Craig Kimbrel.

But there are reasons to believe he can still be an effective closer for the Red Sox.

First of all, he is throwing his fastball harder than ever. Kimbrel is averaging 97.9 miles per hour on his heater, according to Fangraphs, more than a mile per hour faster than his career average.

Second, he’s still relatively young. He doesn’t turn 29 until next month.

Third, he’s been durable. Kimbrel spent three weeks on the disabled list last year but it was due to a knee injury suffered while shagging balls in the Fenway Park outfield. Five years ago, he was one of ten players listed in a Bleacher Report article entitled “10 MLB Pitchers Whose Mechanics Are a Ticking Time Bomb to Serious Injury.” But he’s still ticking. For all the stress on his arm and elbow, Kimbrel has essentially pitched six full seasons.

This year’s peripheral numbers are already trending in a much more positive direction than last year. This year, Kimbrel’s fly ball rate is still a high 46%, but his line drive rate has dropped considerably, from 22.5% to 15.4%. Opposing batters are pulling the ball off him at a rate of 28.6%, way down from last year’s 40.8%.

Then there’s his control. The knock on Kimbrel is usually that he walks more guys than a dominant closer should. That’s part of what makes his appearances feel like the circus is in town. This year he’s walked just two batters in nine innings while striking out 17. Last year he threw at least three balls to 28% of all the batters he faced. This year that number is at just 12%. His strike percentage is also up five percent to 66%.

He’s also been unhittable this year against right-handed hitters. Literally. They’re 0-for-17.

So Kimbrel can still be a very good major league closer. He also just has a maddening habit of giving up big hits in situations where there is a razor-thin margin for error. That’s what you get with this guy: stretches of dominance followed by games when he has us breathing heavily into paper bags until the final out is made.

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