Call me Fox Mulder, because I want to believe that Craig Kimbrel is real. Through his first four appearances, it was more likely that he’d be designated for assignment than designated the team’s closer again, but something has shifted over the past few weeks. Whether it was a mechanical chicken or an egg of confidence, Kimbrel has begun to resemble the dominant reliever we haven’t seen since his Boston days.
First 4: 2.2 IP, 20 BF, 6 H (2 HR), 7 ER, 6 BB, 2 K, 23.63 ERA
Last 3: 3 IP, 11 BF, 0 H, 0 ER, 1 BB, 7 K, 0.00 ERA
The Cubs admitted publicly that the closer’s mechanics were “out of whack,” likely a combination of a lower release point and a different setup on the curveball in particular. That may have led to him revealing his pitches to batters, but the real problem was his location. The breaking ball couldn’t find the zone and generated virtually no swings prior to his outing against Milwaukee on August 14. The fastball caught too much of the zone, a problem that led to all kinds of home runs.
Since being removed from high-leverage duty, however, Kimbrel appears to have identified and corrected the flaws in his game. That improvement was clear Wednesday night, when his fastball averaged 97.6 mph and touched 99 across 11 pitches. Even better, it had regained its familiar ride and lived high in the zone against Cardinals hitters who stood little chance against it.
Only one of his heaters was thrown below the upper third of the zone, and that lone offering zipped low and in to freeze Kolten Wong and end the game. Properly locating his pitches kept the Cards from squaring anything up and set up two strikeouts with the curve in addition to that wicked dart to Wong.
11 FB: 2 balls; 3 called strikes; 5 foul; 1 whiff
9 CU: 4 balls; 1 HBP; 2 called; 1 foul; 1 whiff
Would you like to see the whiffs increase a little bit? Sure, but it’s hard to argue with the results Kimbrel’s gotten of late. Though Kimbrel maintains he never suffered from a lack of confidence, having a few successful outings and earning a save has to feel good.
One at-bat can’t tell us for certain that Kimbrel is “fixed,” but just look at the location of the eight pitches he threw Wong. He fired just one curve (2) and hammered the zone with high fastballs until dropping that last one in there. Not only was the result better than what he’d been getting, the process was different as well.
Compare that to his pitches to Shogo Akiyama back on July 27, the game in which Kimbrel walked four Reds and forced Jeremy Jeffress to play Houdini. The highest pitch in this instance was the lone curveball Kimbrel threw, with he rest of his fastballs low and sweeping across the zone. You’d see similar results if you looked at other ABs from that appearance, but this one stood out because the threw mainly fastballs.
I’m not here to tell you that you need to buy in on Kimbrel reestablishing himself as an elite reliever, though I will say I believe what we’ve seen from him lately is sustainable. He’s throwing harder and, better yet, higher while also locating the curve well enough to get swings. There were a couple of them Wednesday evening that barely missed and might have generated strikes against other hitters.
“I feel like I can throw the ball where I want, somewhere close to where I want,” Kimbrel said after the game. “When that happens, everything kind of falls into place. My last couple of outings have been good, but I’m looking to do a lot more than three scoreless. I’m looking to throw a lot more than that.”
David Ross wouldn’t commit to anything when asked it Kimbrel had earned his old spot back, but it was pretty telling that he was in there with a two-run lead and the game on the line. Jeffress and Rowan Wick have performed well in closing spots too, giving their manager a three-headed monster of sorts. If Kimbrel is truly back, though, it’s easy to see him resuming the 9th-inning duties with two very capable setup men ahead of him.
Now I just hope I don’t have to come back later and eat any of these words.