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2017 Red Sox Review: Craig Kimbrel

A look back at an incredible year for the Red Sox closer

Houston Astros v Boston Red Sox Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images

Welcome to the Red Sox Review series. It’s a fairly standard feature in which we will review the year that was for every player who made a decently large impact on the Red Sox this year. How do I come up with that definition? Completely arbitrarily, of course! The list of players I’m using can be seen here, and if I am missing anyone please let me know in the comments. Anyway, for the players who are included we will look at the positives of their 2017, the negatives, review their One Big Question from the preseason and look ahead to what’s on the table for 2018. Today, we discuss Craig Kimbrel.

The Positives

If we’re being honest, I could probably just write “everything” in this section and call it a day. I won’t do that because I have too much pride (or fear of inadequacy, tomato tomahto), but it’s essentially true. 2017 was an incredible season in what’s been an incredible career for Craig Kimbrel and it eased any concern that may have been lingering after a 2016 that was merely good instead of great. Just look at his numbers at the end of the year. Over 69 innings of work this past year, he pitched to a 1.43 ERA with a 1.39 FIP and a 1.89 DRA. Perhaps even crazier than those numbers is the fact that it’s inarguably not his best season. But we’re only talking about 2017 right now, and it was amazing.

Getting beyond just the overall numbers, there’s the strikeouts. Even in this era of high strikeout rates all around the league, Kimbrel was a notch above most everyone else. He ended up striking out 126 of the 254 batters he faced on the year, giving him a rate just shy of 50 percent. Instead, he had to settle for a rate of 49.6 percent. It was not a career-high for Kimbrel, but it was the best in the league by a significant margin. The The 5.3 percentage point gap between him and Kenley Jansen — who was second on the leaderboard — was greater than the gap between Jansen and David Robertson — who was ninth on the leaderboard. Kimbrel was on another level this year, and both his fastball and his curveball were getting swings and misses.

Boston Red Sox v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

In addition to the strikeouts, Kimbrel was also absolutely incredible against right-handed hitters. Obviously, righties dominate the league in terms of sheer quantity, so having success against them is important. To say Kimbrel had success against them would be the understatement of the century. Righties came to the plate 136 times against the Red Sox closer this year, and they posted a line of just .109/.156/.180. Of the 531 pitchers who faced at least 50 righties in 2017, only Jansen was more effective against right-handed hitters by opponents’ OPS.

I should also probably mention his success in non-save situations, since this was an unfair concern heading into the year. He posted an 0.64 ERA in 28 innings in those situations in 2017 while allowing an OPS of just .394. There was also the matter of his control, which was probably his most important positive of the year, but I’ll get to that in a minute.

The Negatives

It was extremely easy to find positives for Kimbrel from last year, and honestly I could have kept going way beyond what I included above. On the flip side, it is very difficult to find negatives in Kimbrel’s year. The one that’s on everyone’s mind, and one that is fair to bring up. I speak, of course, of his performance in Game Four of the ALDS. This was obviously the game that ended the Red Sox season, and Kimbrel came in to a tie game. He ended up giving up three hits in an inning of work and allowed one of his own runs as well as an inherited run, and that ended up being the difference in the game and the season. He was so good all year long, but it’s tough to call his performance in the final game of the year anything but disappointing.

Beyond that, there’s really....nothing. Maybe you can complain about his month of July where he allowed an OPS over .700, but come on. Don’t be that guy. Kimbrel was great, and while his ALDS Game Four performance was a killer, everything else about his year was great.

The Big Question

Can Craig Kimbrel get his control issues under....control?

If you recall, Kimbrel’s walk issues were a fairly major concern heading into 2017. He still showed off dominant stuff in 2016, but he allowed way too many walks and it led to too many stressful ninth innings. He didn’t need to get elite control, he just needed to improve. He decided, screw it, I’ll get near-elite control. Kimbrel finished the year walking just 5.5 percent of his opponents, the lowest rate of his career. That gave him the league’s highest K%-BB%. In fact, his mark of 44.1 percent was the second highest since 2010. The first highest was also by him, when he posted a mark of 44.2 percent in 2012. So, yeah, the control was under control in 2017.

Looking Ahead to 2018

Kimbrel is under contract for $13 million in his final season before hitting free agency. I’m confident the Red Sox will keep him around for 2017, and though it’s not usually prudent to give extensions to relievers, Kimbrel is a special breed. It shouldn’t be a priority this winter, but I’d at least look into an extension for the closer. He is on a Hall of Fame track, and there’s no reason to expect anything other than greatness in the back of Boston’s bullpen in 2018.