Welcome back to the One Big Question series here at Over The Monster. For those who weren’t around for last year’s series or simply forgot what it entails — there’s a lot going on in the world today, so don’t be ashamed! — here’s a brief reminder. Every day, Monday through Friday, for the next eight weeks we’ll profile a new member of Red Sox 40-man roster. Rather than simply going through a simple profile of their overall game and what they offer the team, we’ll focus on the one question that could very well dictate how their season will go in 2018. In order to keep the order objective and avoid side conversations like ranking the players on the roster, we’ll go straight down the roster in alphabetical order by position. In other words, we’ll go by how things are ordered here. If you miss any editions or would like to look back on some of last year’s, you can see all of them here. Today, we’re looking at Craig Kimbrel.
The Question How heavily will the Red Sox have to lean on Craig Kimbrel?
When we look back at the 2017 season, the headline player for the Red Sox has obviously been Chris Sale. Every second we spend talking about how great Sale was last season is deserved, and we should honestly talk about it more. He struck out over 300 batters! Holy shit! That being said, Sale wasn’t the only otherworldly pitcher on the roster, and it sort of feels as if the lanky southpaw’s success somewhat overshadowed how incredible Craig Kimbrel was this past season. It was one of the best years in a career that has him on track to be in the discussion for greatest closer of all time, and he reminded the world that he is still elite after a 2016 in which he was merely mortal. Now, Dirty Craig (I still haven’t gotten over that this is apparently his nickname) is entering the final year of his contract, and he has something to prove as he looks to be the next reliever to get a massive contract next offseason. Whether or not the Red Sox get involved in that negotiation remains to be seen, and is a discussion for another day. Today, I’m wondering just how much they are going to use their elite reliever in the final year of his contract.
Before we get into that question, let’s take a quick second to remember how amazing Kimbrel was in 2017 because, well, it’s fun to look at very good baseball stats. Last year, the Red Sox closer made 67 appearances spanning 69 innings (more on those numbers in a second) and posted mind-numbingly great numbers in that time. He ended the year with a 1.43 ERA, a 1.42 FIP that was 67 (!!) percent better than the league-average pitcher and a 1.89 DRA that was 60 percent better than the league-average pitcher. He also struck out 49.6 percent of the batters he faced (WHAT) and walked only 5.5 percent. Since 1900, only one player has had a higher K% - BB%. That player was Craig Kimbrel in 2012. Bananas, all of it.
Okay, so he was very stupidly good in 2017, which we knew but should always remind ourselves of because it was one of the more special reliever seasons in recent memory. He also pitched a whole hell of a lot, at least relative to his career. In terms of appearances, it was Kimbrel’s highest total since 2013 and third-highest of his career. In terms of innings, it was his highest total since 2011 and the second-highest of his career. In terms of number of pitches, it was his highest total since 2011 and the second-highest of his career. Really, that 2011 season was the only one in which he was forced to throw more often, and that was the first full season of his career when he was in his age-23 season. Kimbrel has been able to come back perfectly fine from big workloads in the past and his durability has been an underrated component of his incredible career. However, he’s about to start his age-30 season and the Red Sox may be wise to back off just a little bit.
Of course, that’s a lot easier said than done. Really, when looking at the question of Kimbrel’s workload, it’s kind of a two-part question. The first is the obvious definition of workload with just how often they are going to send Kimbrel to the mound. I think everyone would agree that, in an ideal world, the Red Sox would use their closer less often than they did in 2017. Unfortunately, that may be easier said than done. The expectation is that Boston is going to be in a tight playoff race, for both the division and the wildcard, all year long and every game is important. We’ve talked a lot about how much variance there is with the relievers behind Kimbrel on the depth chart, and if none of them step up that means Alex Cora will feel pressure to lean heavily on his closer in these games. There’s also the fact that it seems likely that Boston will once again be a team that revolves around pitching, which is fine but also leads to low-scoring games. Obviously, the fewer runs scored the more likely any given game will involve a save situation. All of this adds up to potential to go back to the Kimbrel well again and again.
In addition to the straight-up workload, it’s unclear how Kimbrel is going to be used in the upcoming season. With each passing year it becomes more and more trendy and likely for major-league managers to use their closers in non-save situations. Cora has already said that he’d like to use Kimbrel earlier in games when the situation calls for it, though the player isn’t necessarily on board with this decision. It’s a fine line for Cora to walk, because he obviously wants to put the team in the best position to win but also would like to keep his players happy. Happy players are better players, ya know? Once again, much of this likely comes down to how well the rest of the bullpen pitches. If someone like Carson Smith steps up and proves to be near-elite, or at least something close to being close to elite, then it no longer feels so important to use Kimbrel at different points of the game and instead you can let him get settled in his normal role.
In terms of talent, there’s little reason to think Kimbrel will be anything other than great in 2018. We’ve seen him bounce back from big workloads before, so we should expect it again, though he may not be as great as he was in 2018. That being said, his workload is still something to monitor as they probably don’t want him pitching so much in back-to-back years. Furthermore, Kimbrel himself likely doesn’t want to put that much mileage on his arm heading into free agency. Really, this question is more about the rest of the bullpen than Kimbrel himself, since his teammates will play a large role in dictating his workload. Still, Kimbrel’s workload is going to be something to watch for in Cora’s first year, both in terms of how often he pitches and how consistent his role is.