Welcome to Over The Monster’s One Big Question series. For the next 40 (week)days, we will be trying to answer one important question for each player on the Red Sox 40-man roster. The goal is to find one interesting portion of each player’s game to watch for, whether that be in spring training or the early regular season. We’ll be going straight down the list on the team’s roster page, meaning we’ll be going in alphabetical order through each position group, starting with the pitchers. Today, we’re highlighting Craig Kimbrel.
The Question: Can Craig Kimbrel get his control issues under....control?
Just like yesterday’s post with Joe Kelly, this was sort of an obvious question. It’s an important one for the Red Sox closer, though. Given the package the team dealt for Kimbrel and the general anxiety around the trade, the team’s new ninth inning man had to pitch lights out to stay on everyone’s good side in 2016. That didn’t really work out, unfortunately. There was plenty of inconsistency here, and at a position that draws closer (no pun intended) scrutiny than any other, Kimbrel couldn’t afford it.
That’s not to say he was bad, however, because he most certainly wasn’t. His 3.40 ERA over 53 innings obviously isn’t much to write home about, but we all know ERA isn’t the best way to judge relievers. Kimbrel still managed to post a 2.88 FIP (69 FIP-), 83 cFIP and 3.01 DRA (82 DRA-). Those aren’t the dominant numbers we’re used to from the righty, but they’re still more than usable. Most of the success was on the back of his still-great strikeout stuff, as shown by his 38 percent strikeout rate.
Unfortunately, his control fell off a cliff and it cost him. In 2016, Kimbrel walked 5.1 batters per inning and just about 14 percent of all of his opponents. Those are awful rates. In fact, among the 326 pitchers with 50 innings, he had the eighth-worst BB/9 and the fifth-worst BB%. In addition to that, he hit four batters, making him one of only four pitchers to do so without topping the 55 inning mark.
While Kimbrel has long been one of the best relievers in baseball — and really one of the best in recent memory -- he’s never really been a beacon of control. He’s been consistently below-average in this regard, typically walking around ten percent of his opponents. Things have never been as bad as they were in 2016, though.
The key is figuring out why. For one, and this is obvious, he simply missed the zone more often. According to Baseball Prospectus’ plate discipline numbers, he hit the zone just 45 percent of the time. That’s more than two percentage points below his career average and in the bottom fifth among all pitchers in baseball. Even worse, according to BP’s new control metrics, he once again near the bottom of the leaderboard. The basic measurements of control all agree: He had none.
If you look at the rest of his career, there’s not much that’s changed. Kimbrel has always been a two-pitch guy, relying on a fastball and power curveball. That remained the case in 2016, with the righty moving slightly more towards the curveball, but not to any alarming extent. Neither pitch can be singled out as the cause of these control issues, either, as the rate at which they were each called for balls raised by roughly the same amount. Instead, the thing that jumps out is where, relative to the strike zone, the balls were being thrown.
On the left, you’ll see Kimbrel’s zone plot from his pre-Red Sox career. On the right, you’ll see the view from 2016. Looking closely, you’ll notice that in the more recent plot, he missed high and/or to his glove side much more often. There could be plenty of reasons for this. It could be a mechanical issue, though it’s not one that my amateur eye could spot. It could also be a mental issue, which is hard to speculate about. Still, as a new pitcher in a pressure-filled city that came over in a controversial deal, it could be possible that he was over-exerting himself and overthrowing on a more regular basis.
Perhaps supporting that theory — or not, again this is all speculation — is the way Kimbrel sequenced his strike throwing. Given this extreme increase in walks, a smart hypothesis would be that he was beginning many at bats with first-pitch balls. That smart hypothesis would be wrong. In fact, Kimbrel actually saw a decrease on his called-ball rate for each of his pitches in 0-0 counts. The issue came with two strikes, when his called-ball rate for both offerings jumped significantly. He didn’t start using one pitch more than the other in this situation, but simply stopped being able to locate it. It’s a really odd problem to have, and it undid him for most of his rough patches.
All things considered, Kimbrel is still one of the better closers in baseball and is clearly the best reliever on this team. His strikeout stuff is still capital-E Elite, and he can protect more ninth inning leads than not. Still, if he wants to get back to his previous standing, he needs to fix those extreme control problems that surfaced in 2016. Hopefully, this was just a case of nerves and his second season can bring more success. The Red Sox have plenty of wildcards in the bullpen that can bring the unit to the next level, but the first step is Kimbrel returning to form as an elite reliever in this league.