AL CentralAnalysis

Slinger Saturday: Craig Kimbrel

10 years ago at the age of 23, Craig Kimbrel used to be one of the most dominant closers in all of baseball. Kimbrel led MLB in saves 4 years in a row from 2011-2014, picking up 4 all-star appearances, 3 top 10 Cy Young finishes, 3 top 25 MVP votes, and a Rookie of the year award. The last time a pitcher led the league in saves for 4 straight years was Bruce Sutter from 1979-1982.

Other than the first half of 2021 with the Cubs, it seems that Kimbrel has regressed rather quickly since playing in Chicago (both for the Cubs and the White Sox). Let’s dive into Kimbrel’s mechanics before trying to dissect what went wrong.

In 2021, Craig Kimbrel’s released height averaged 4.77 feet above the ground. Kimbrel was also in the top 10th percentile of fastball velocity, whiff%, K%, xSLG, xwOBA, xERA, and xBA. Kimbrel is a two-pitch pitcher who relies on a fastball that averages 96.5 mph and a curveball that averages 86.1 mph. As Kimbrel has aged, his fastball usage has decreased and his curveball usage has increased. Along with this usage change, Kimbrel’s fastball average the second slowest velocity of his career, and his curveball had the lowest amount of vertical break in his career. Let’s see what could be causing this change.

Tweet from @SoxOnTap

Jordan Lazowski, our Editor-in-Chief as well as a writer at Sox on 35th, posted an article talking about what could be the reason that Kimbrel struggled after his move to the White Sox. Something that Jordan mentioned that I would like to dive into was his usage.

After only pitching a combined 36 innings in 2019 and 2020, Kimbrel was then asked to throw in a high volume 2021, throwing a total of 59.2 innings between the Cubs and White Sox. This higher than normal volume has taken a toll on Kimbrel, as his fastball spin rate has dropped every year since 2015 when he was in the 99th percentile (Kimbrel was in the 65th percentile in 2021) as well as curveball spin dropping from the 86th percentile to 65th.

So what’s next for Kimbrel? Honestly, while things are getting worse for Kimbrel, there is a lot to be excited about. You have to remember that he is a pitcher that has lasted 10 years in the big leagues so far and has done so at a dominant level for most of his career. I don’t want to take a half-season sample size with the White Sox and say that Kimbrel is done, because that would be outlandish. However, it is important to realize that as Kimbrel gets older, load management is going to play a major role in his production. Maybe not pitching him as often or trying to mess with Hendriks and move him to the setup role.

I honestly don’t know the solution, but saying we will see elite Kimbrel on the bump soon is definitely not a hot take.

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