Saturday night against the Yankees, as Boston was in the midst of their massive sweep over their AL East rivals, Craig Kimbrel had Red Sox fans everywhere on the edge of their seat. After striking out the first two batters of the ninth, things got scary. Kimbrel gave up back to back doubles, then proceeded to walk the bases loaded. A Greg Bird flyout stopped the bleeding, but control has been something of an issue for Kimbrel all year.
In 2016, Kimbrel’s first year with the Red Sox, the same control issues plagued him. His walk rate was a career-high 13.6%, which resulted in a 3.40 ERA, also the highest mark of his career. Last year, however, he lowered his walk rate over 8%, which in turn contributed to a sparkling 1.43 ERA and a dominant, vintage season overall for Kimbrel.
Fast forward to 2018, and his 2016 season seems to be upon us again. His walk rate is back up to 11.5% this year, and his FIP is up to 3.14. Perhaps most concerning is that Kimbrel has lost almost 2 mph on his fastball this year, and just over 1 mph on his curveball. It’s possible the loss in velocity explains why his fastball, after being worth 19 runs above average last year, has been worth just 4.3 runs above average this year. Despite this, Kimbrel has still been rock solid in save situations, converting 33 of his 36 opportunities, which brings me to my next point.
The ‘save’ in and of itself is stupid. The rules are arbitrary and cause managers to use their relievers inefficiently. A team’s closer is almost always its best reliever, but this reliever is often not used during the most important innings of a game simply for the sake of this statistic.
This is an argument Red Sox fans make with regards to the use of Craig Kimbrel; many believe Kimbrel should only be used in the ninth inning when the Red Sox have a lead of 3 runs or less. As support for this, Craig’s ERA in non-save situations this season is 3.72, compared to just a 1.98 ERA in save situations. This belief that he should be avoided in non-save situations, in my opinion, is foolish despite the splits. Kimbrel has less than 10 innings of work in non-save situations this year, which is much too small of a sample size to draw conclusions from. Over his career, he has a 2.22 ERA in non-save situations compared to a 1.68 mark in save situations. There’s still a difference, but not nearly as concerning.
Ultimately, Kimbrel is the Red Sox’ clear best reliever, and it shouldn’t matter whether he is utilized in the 8th inning of a tie game, or a 4-run lead rather than a 3-run lead. I have no problem with Alex Cora going to Kimbrel up 4-0 in Saturday’s Yankee game and will never have a problem with a similar decision. A one run difference does not magically make Kimbrel a different pitcher.
So, should Red Sox fans worry about Craig Kimbrel? My answer is a definite no. Kimbrel has a stellar track record and will continue to be the Sox’ best reliever, whether the situation calls for him or not. Craig has still been solid, converting saves with regularity, and despite his worrisome control, there is no reason he can’t fully return to his 2017 form, or at least something close enough to it.