This time of year, it is helpful to start every conversation about baseball by looking at a calendar and realizing that it is still April. That is to say, it’s far too early to have any strong opinions about anything, particularly the performance of a star. Along those lines, despite a couple of rough outings, we shouldn’t be worried about Craig Kimbrel. Honestly, that should be obvious, given the fact that he’s been one of the best relievers in baseball for years and is on his way to being one of the best of all time. Plus, alongside the couple of rough outings, we’ve seen the typical greatness from him as well. With that being said, it is worth looking into his first few outings of the year to see if there’s been any noticeable differences.
The biggest thing with Kimbrel is his control. It’s always been something of an issue, in that it’s not an elite tool for a pitcher that is seemingly built from only the best qualities a pitcher can possess. To be fair, it hasn’t been an issue in the sense that it’s never really affected him. As I said, he has a legitimate chance to be remembered as an all-time great despite his merely average control. This season, however, he’s been all over the place to the extent of affecting him on the mound. As of this writing, the Red Sox closer has an 18 percent walk-rate, albeit in a small sample. Still, just relying on the eye test it’s clear that his control has been off this year, particularly against right-handed hitters.
To be clear, he hasn’t been bad against righties. He’s still striking them out at an insane rate — 52.4 percent, to be exact — he’s still limiting hits against them, and he still hasn’t allowed an extra-base hit against a right-handed bat. However, with all of that, he’s been undone twice with poor control against them. To wit, he has walked roughly 24 percent of righties he has faced this season, compared to 9.6 percent over his career and just 6.8 percent in 2015.
Obviously, this is a small sample size thing. If Kimbrel goes out for his next few outings and doesn’t walk anyone, his rates will get back down to normal range and all of this will be forgotten. With that being said, there is something about his approach against righties that jumped out to me, and I wanted to quickly investigate it more closely. It’s appeared that he’s being more cautious against same-handed hitters than logic would dictate for a pitcher with his stuff.
Specifically, Kimbrel has been relying almost exclusively on the outer part of the plate against in these situations.
In the interest of full disclosure, that doesn’t include yesterday’s game, but I did go back and watch his outing to see if it backed up my theory. From what I could tell, every pitch against a righty included Christian Vazquez’s target being set up either down the middle or on the outer-half of the plate. Now, that really doesn’t sound too weird. Pitchers always try to stay away from batters, as it’s much harder to do damage on outside pitches. However, there are usually some pitches on the inner-half mixed in, especially when you throw 98-99 mph. What Kimbrel is doing in the early part of 2016 is an extreme instance, as you can see by comparing it with his zone profile last year.
So, on the one hand, there is still a lot of blue on the inner part of the plate in this graph. On the other hand, there are still some pitches being mixed in. Particularly, he was more aggressive up-and-in last year, which makes sense given the heat he possesses.
Of course, there are some reasonable explanations for this, as there are for most weird trends this time of year. The most obvious would be that he has faced a lot of Blue Jays and Orioles this year. Both of those lineups are filled with power-hitting righties, something that most lineups don’t boast. It’s perfectly reasonable to be a little more cautious against those offenses.
As is typically the case with early-season analysis, this is more of something to watch for going forward than for something to be worried about. I mean, while it’d be more beneficial to change sides of the plate on a more regular basis, it hasn’t affected Kimbrel. He’s still striking out more than half of his opponents. However, right-handed hitters are already more able to lay off pitches as they’re all heading towards the same side. One would assume this approach will change at some point, and there’s no reason to worry about his performance going forward. Still, next time Kimbrel takes the mound, pay special attention to where his catcher sets up.