Far too early to panic about Kimbrel’s future
While many have become concerned about Craig Kimbrel’s recent results, veteran umpire Angel Hernandez has not seen conclusive evidence that the Braves closer has been struggling.
Based on what we saw in Cleveland last night, maybe Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez should have asked Hernandez to review the David Wright home run that landed 11 rows deep in the right-center field seats with two outs in the ninth inning of Friday’s loss to the Mets.
Enough of the Hernandez talk. The more time I spend around the AJC’s (or is it myAJC’s) Jeff Schultz, the more I become more like him. Given I’d like to keep my hair, we will now turn our attention back to Kimbrel.
Over the course of his past five appearances, Kimbrel has blown as many save opportunities (3) as he did while converting 42 of his 45 opportunities last year. During his past three appearances, within a span of 10 plate appearances, he has allowed as many home runs (3) as he did all of last year.
This has led many around the baseball world to discuss whether Kimbrel will ever regain the dominant form he possessed last year when he compiled a 1.01 ERA. limited opponents to a .126 batting average and struck out more than half of the batters he faced (116 of 231). This year, he has allowed opponents to hit .226 and has struck out 21 of the 52 batters he faced.
Before getting too worked up about the strikeout percentage, realize he struck out 10 of the 26 (41 percent) batters he faced while allowing three hits and no runs in this season’s first nine appearances (8 2/3 innings). In the process of allowing five runs and eight hits in his past five appearances (4 2/3 innings), he has struck out nine of the 23 batters he has faced (39 percent).
While those strikeout percentages are similar, he has actually gotten closer to last year’s form while striking out six of the 13 batters he has faced this month. Unfortunately, he has also allowed three two-out home runs in the process.
Kimbrel made a mistake when he elevated the 97-mph fastball that Wright hit deep into the right-center field seats with two outs in the ninth inning of last Friday’s loss. But we might not be having this discussion if Justin Upton had not got turned around while chasing Dexter Fowler’s two-out fly ball in the ninth inning of the April 24 loss at Coors Field.
Again we saw this is a game of inches or feet on Tuesday, when B.J. Upton simply ran out of room while chasing Devin Mesoraco’s game-tying home run that fell in the first row of Cincinnati’s offensively-friendly ballpark with two outs in Tuesday’s ninth inning.
Each of the three home runs Kimbrel has surrendered this year (all within his past three appearances) have come against his fastball. Mesoraco and Wright hit their shots on two-strike fastballs.
Combining Justin Upton’s misplay with these two home runs, it can be said three pitches is all that separate Kimbrel from being perfect to this point.
Still with all of this being said, Kimbrel has not been the same overpowering, dominant pitcher that he was the past two seasons. But instead of worrying, fans should remember the longevity of a closer’s dominance is often on par with the longevity of a marriage to Elizabeth Taylor.
This is not to say Kimbrel does not have the ability to serve as one of the game’s top closers for many years to come. But there is certainly no guarantee he’ll ever be as dominant as he was during last year’s incredible season.
According to FanGraphs.com, Kimbrel’s average velocity for his fastball has dropped from 96.8 to 96.0 this year. The average velocity of his slider has decreased from 85.7 to 85.0. The slight drop in velocity is not that big of a deal. But it is somewhat telling that he threw his curveball (often interpreted as a slider) 32.6 percent of the time last year and is throwing it just 22.8 percent of the time this year.
After Kimbrel had a couple of rough outings in Spring Training, I asked him about the fact that he was seemingly shying away from his breaking ball. He told me there were many regular season games where he solely used his fastball.
At the time, it seemed to be one of those “I’m just working on things” responses you often get in Spring Training. But so far, the response seems to have been a sign of things to come.
But before getting too caught up on pitch selection, it should be realized that seven of the 20 (35 percent) pitches Kimbrel threw during Tuesday’s loss to the Reds were sliders. Each of the first four sliders he threw were strikes and he struck out the first two batters he faced. He missed with a first-pitch slider to Mesoraco and then threw five straight fastballs, the last of which landed in the first row of the right-center field seats.
Kimbrel then got ahead of Shin-Soo Choo with a first-pitch fastball before missing the strike zone with consecutive sliders. The next pitch, a 96-mph fastball resulted in a walk-off home run and the need to address the “What is Wrong with Kimbrel” questions.
In response to last night’s botched replay review in Cleveland, Major League Baseball’s vice president of baseball operations Joe Torre issued a release that included these words, “
Perfection is an impossible standard in any endeavor.”
Unfortunately for a closer who has been as dominant as Kimbrel as been in the past, anything short of perfection creates cause for concern. But the three costly two-out pitches he has made over the course of the past week certainly should not create cause for panic.