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2018 in Review: Craig Kimbrel

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A look back at the year that was for the Red Sox closer.

World Series - Boston Red Sox v Los Angeles Dodgers - Game Four Photo by Sean M. Haffey/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 wrap up their season in a sentence, look at the positives of their 2018, the negatives, review their One Big Question from the preseason and look ahead to what’s on the table for 2019. Today, we discuss Craig Kimbrel.

The Year in a Sentence

Craig Kimbrel had a near-disastrous postseason and some year-long control issues, but on the whole it seems like it’s been easy to forget he was still very, very good in the regular season.

The Positives

I get that it can be hard to look at Kimbrel’s 2018 as a positive on the whole, even if you put aside the postseason. The Red Sox closer was just so utterly dominant in 2017, that if you only compare his 2018 to the year before he is going to fall short in every category. If you look more broadly, though, you’ll still see some success. His strikeout rate is a good example of this. Compared to 2017, he actually set down 2.5 fewer batters per nine innings in 2018. That doesn’t sound great, but ultimately he still struck out 14 batters per nine innings this past year, and even in an era with ever-increasing strikeout rates that 14 per nine is outstanding. Furthermore, among the 268 pitchers with at least 1000 pitches, Kimbrel had the highest overall swinging strike rate (per Baseball Prospectus) including the fourth lowest contact rate on pitches out of the zone and the eighth lowest on pitches in the zone. He was still dominant, even if he wasn’t 2017-levels of dominant.

World Series - Boston Red Sox v Los Angeles Dodgers - Game Four Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Which brings us to his overall numbers, because again they are mostly very good if you can avoid the temptation of avoiding one of the best individual reliever seasons in recent memory. By the end of the regular season, Kimbrel tossed 62 13 innings and finished with a 2.74 ERA, a 3.16 FIP and a 2.58 DRA. Compared to the league-average pitcher, he was 39 percent better by ERA, 25 percent better by FIP and 42 percent better by DRA. So, again, compared to the rest of the field rather than himself, he was still very good. I’m not the biggest fan of WAR, particularly for pitchers, but among relievers Kimbrel was 12th in Baseball-Reference WAR (based on ERA), 21st in Fangraphs WAR (based on FIP) and 14th in Baseball Prospectus WARP (based on DRA). He was clearly one of the better relievers in the game last year, which considering it was certainly a down year for the closer is a good thing.

Then, you have a couple of smaller splits in which Kimbrel excelled. For one thing, he was absolutely dominant against opposing righties. That is particularly valuable in today’s American League with the Yankees and Astros, among other teams, having so many dominant righties. Granted, Kimbrel was good against hitters of either handedness, but against righties he held opponents to a .139/.238/.270 line for a .508 OPS. Meanwhile, the righty was also outstanding in high-leverage situations. Obviously, as a closer most of his appearances came in high-leverage spots this year, and in those spots opponents hit just .128/.244/.256. Again, all of this can be easy to forget after October, but he was very good for most of the year.

The Negatives

Of course, we can’t just wave away that postseason on a whim. Specifically, if you are someone who wants to pay Nathan Eovaldi or Joe Kelly based solely on their October performance, it’s hard to reckon that with ignoring Kimbrel’s postseason. It was really, really bad. The closer was, well, he was bad. It’s hard to describe how bad he was. Now, if you ask people around the team about him, they’ll be quick to point out that he never blew a save. That’s true, amazingly! It is also a nice way to avoid talking about how ineffective he really was. Kimbrel pitched to a 5.91 ERA over that time, and even worse he allowed nineteen (19!) baserunners in 10 23 innings of work. Seemingly every time we turned around in the ninth, he had two runners on with just one out. Whether it was luck, his teammates or truly bending without breaking, Kimbrel somehow got out of every tough jam but not before giving everyone a heart attack. It was truly the worst version of Kimbrel we’ve seen.

Even beyond the postseason, there were plenty of concerns with Kimbrel during the regular season and mostly they come down to command issues. For as absurd as his stuff can be — and it can be out of this world — he struggled mightily getting it where he wanted it to go in 2018. By the end of the year, he had walked 4.5 batters per nine innings — his second highest rate of his career — while also allowing a home run per nine innings. The latter was a career high, and arguably more worrisome. The walks were frustrating, and you’d like to see that get somewhere in the 3’s.

World Series - Boston Red Sox v Los Angeles Dodgers - Game Four Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

However, Kimbrel’s always been impossible to square up and the fact that he was mortal this year could be concerning. When people talk about his impending downfall as a pitcher, I think this is mostly what they refer to. For one thing, he is only becoming more and more of an extreme fly ball pitcher. That can certainly work, particularly with Boston’s outfield defense, but with hitters trying to launch the ball more than ever it can also lead to plenty of trouble. He also suffered through a bit of a velocity drop in 2018, and all of that combined is a legitimate concern.

The Big Question

How much are the Red Sox going to lean on Craig Kimbrel?

You have to wonder how much of Kimbrel’s struggles came down to his relatively large workload in 2017. John Farrell didn’t trust most of the rest of his bullpen that year, and Kimbrel was being used or warmed up what seemed like every day. I don’t think that was the biggest factor in Kimbrel’s struggles, but it’s worth mentioning. This year, Alex Cora did rest his closer more often, just like he rested all of his players more. In that sense, he was not leaned on as much. However, they obviously had a longer postseason run, so if you include that with his numbers it was the most Kimbrel has been worked since his first full professional season.

The Year Ahead

Kimbrel is on the open market as we speak and is one of the top free agents available this winter. Just like it’s interesting to see how a strong postseason affects guys like Kelly and Eovaldi, it’s interesting to see how much it knocks Kimbrel. In terms of his season-long negatives, I think it’s worth remembering that he essentially missed all of spring training with his daughter dealing with very serious heart problems back in Boston. I’m not sure how to factor that into his performance, but it’s hard to imagine it had no effect. Ultimately, I think he is going to come back to Boston, and I’d expect a performance somewhere between 2017 and 2018. In fact, I’d probably look at his lone season in San Diego as a good baseline for 2019 expectations.