Though he was anything but clean during two truncated tours in which disaster was just as likely to strike as his curveball, Craig Kimbrel is finally back to being dirty. After joining the Cubs in late June of the 2019 season, Kimbrel proceeded to allow a career-worst nine home runs over a career-low 20.2 innings. His fastball was flat and lacked its traditional zip, plus the long layoff from waiting out his qualifying offer penalty left him rusty and prone to nagging injuries.
The 2020 season started out looking like more of the same until mechanical adjustments saw him dialing his heater up and hiding his curveball better. He was the Dirty Craig of old over his last eight appearances, but that all seemed to have gone by the wayside when spring training started. Kimbrel was once again grooving fastballs with alarmingly low velocity and the outs he was getting were loud.
Then a switch flipped and he was once again back to the nastiness that has made him one of the game’s elite closers for the last decade-plus. It’s only been four games, but Kimbrel now has nine strikeouts without a walk or hit allowed in 4.2 innings of work.
He was asked to get five outs Thursday afternoon in Pittsburgh, entering the game in the 8th after Dan Winkler relieved Rex Brothers with one out and proceeded to walk the bases loaded on 15 pitches. The closer wasted no time eliminating the threat, punching out Dustin Fowler and Wilmer Difo on just eight pitches. Five of those offerings were curves, proving that it’s unhittable when it’s right and hitters aren’t seeing it well.
It helps when that fastball laughs at physics as it makes like the world’s fastest escalator on its trip to the top of the zone.
Craig Kimbrel, 87mph Knuckle Curve (foul) and 97mph Fastball (Swinging K), Overlay pic.twitter.com/WgjVb9rCqU
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) April 9, 2021
More than just his first regular-season save of five outs or more, the effort marked Kimbrel’s 350th career save to pad his active lead. He’s currently 12th all-time on that list, just eight behind Troy Percival and within reach of Jeff Reardon (367), Jonathan Papelbon (368), and former Cubs great Joe Nathan (377) if he maintains this early pace.
“Let’s focus on 351 and then go from there,” Kimbrel said coyly after the game. …“I still have a lot of goals and things that I came to Chicago to do. That was not just to go out there and perform and do my job. It was to do that to help this team go through the playoffs and win a World Series.”
The last two seasons made it all too easy for folks to forget just how good this guy really is, but everyone is taking notice now that he’s pitching like a Hall of Famer again. One such person is the teammate whose win Kimbrel preserved.
“Let’s take a moment to appreciate just the greatness of Craig Kimbrel and what he’s been able to do over the course of his career,” Jake Arrieta said postgame. “Three-hundred fifty saves is truly remarkable.”
It’s not just the Cubs who’ve recognized the resurgence, either, and for good reason. Hitters have been utterly helpless thus far, to the point that they’re even sharing their frustrated awe with Cubs players.
“Players and base runners are telling me that he’s back on his [old stuff],” Javier Baez told members of the media. “Seeing the way he’s pitching and seeing the movement the way he was.”
I’m sure there are still plenty of you out there who are just waiting for the other cleat to drop and for Kimbrel to start walking multiple batters and giving up an untimely dinger. Maybe you’re skeptical because he hasn’t necessarily faced the best groups of hitters yet, and that’s fair. At the same time, there’s no denying the way he’s pitching: explosive heat up in the zone, wicked breaking balls down. That’ll play no matter who’s batting.
Sometimes you just have to get filthy in order to clean up your reputation.