Craig Kimbrel Is Basically Perfect Again

I’m sorry to have to tell you that you’re never going to hit in the major leagues. As far as how well you’d do if you got the opportunity — it’s fun to think about the lowest possible limits, but random fans never get the chance. It’s an experiment that will never be run, but the closest we can get to an understanding is by examining American League pitchers. Every last one of them is a professional athlete worth millions of dollars, but they’re not supposed to have to hit. The fact that they do hit sometimes is more or less an accident of scheduling. They practice hitting just about never, and that’s reflected in their results. In this table, there are two lines. One shows how American League pitchers have hit so far in 2017. The other shows how all the regular players have hit so far against Craig Kimbrel.

AL Pitchers Batting, and Opponents vs. Craig Kimbrel
??? 0.108 0.159 0.157 5% 47%
??? 0.092 0.132 0.169 3% 53%

I kept it a mystery because it’s a popular writer technique. Look, they’re almost indistinguishably bad! Point made! But just for the hell of it, I’ll tell you now, the AL pitcher line is the first one. The Kimbrel line is the second one. The second one is the worse one.

Half a decade ago, Craig Kimbrel became the first pitcher ever to pitch fairly often and strike out at least half of all the batters he faced. Sure, he barely eclipsed 50%, and sure, Aroldis Chapman followed that up two years later, and sure, league-wide strikeout rates have been rising for a while, but 2012 Kimbrel was practically perfect. He had maybe the most dominant relief season of all time. His FIP was lower than 1. He was a sensation, and it would’ve been impossible for Kimbrel to repeat a summer so flawless.

Narrative took over from there. Narrative and, just as much, human nature. It’s in our blood to get used to things, and to raise our standards to impossible heights. Kimbrel’s ERA climbed for four consecutive seasons, and the discussion became one about how Kimbrel had fallen off. How he’d grown unreliable. A knee injury screwed with some of his numbers in his first year in Boston, but there was definitely a reduced level of trust. We love to think about players simply; we declare they’re improving or on the decline. Kimbrel’s been declining. That was, at least, the consensus.

It is consensus no more. Kimbrel so far has pitched in 19 games. He’s put nine hitters on base. It’s 2017, and Kimbrel — who’s still just 28 years old, for another few days — is basically perfect again. The Red Sox haven’t had the pitching staff they expected, but Kimbrel is pulling more than his weight.

19 games, I said. Kimbrel’s thrown nearly 20 innings. Let’s look at his entire career in 19-game samples. First, here’s how Kimbrel has thrown pitches in the strike zone:

Nothing subtle about that. What’s one explanation for why Kimbrel has been so very good? He’s thrown plenty of strikes. Not at a personally unprecedented level, but at a rare level, a level he hasn’t reached for years. Kimbrel has peppered the strike zone. There’s more. How about how hitters have done against those pitches in the zone?

This plot shows in-zone contact rate. I love the pair of recent trends. Kimbrel has thrown far more strikes, and even when he’s thrown strikes, he’s generated far more whiffs. What could be better than that? There is no more certain mark of utter dominance. So let’s put this together. More than 300 pitchers to this point have thrown at least 15 innings. Here are all of them, plotted by in-zone contact rate, and by overall zone rate. The Kimbrel point is highlighted in red.

It’s the perfect combination, and nobody else is all that close. Okay, Trevor Rosenthal is kind of close, but Kimbrel ranks 16th in zone rate, around names like Kenley Jansen and Ivan Nova. Yet when you sort by zone contact, Kimbrel easily ranks first, by more than five percentage points. The pitchers with similar zone rates have allowed in-zone contact more than 80% of the time. Kimbrel’s rate is barely above 60%. This is how a guy can end up with two walks and 36 strikeouts.

Kimbrel’s profile is still pretty simple. He still throws that high-90s high-spin fastball, and that high-80s curveball. He hasn’t changed his repertoire or added velocity. He’s simply commanded the ball extremely well, and it helps to not have anything torn in his knee this time around. What this comes down to, as usual, is a mix of health and consistent mechanics, the former allowing for the latter. Yet it’s not like Kimbrel hasn’t made his adjustments. For example, here are pitch-location heat maps from Baseball Savant.

Kimbrel is keeping his fastball within a tighter area, and he hasn’t missed nearly so often up and to the arm side, which is a symptom of flying open. The fastball locations show that Kimbrel is better about completing his delivery. And then on the bottom half, you see that Kimbrel is keeping his curve closer to the zone, if not within it more often. The curve has become a tougher pitch to take, and both the curve and the fastball have sort of come closer together. It’s not so easy for a hitter to eliminate one or the other.

Out of all the pitchers who have thrown at least 100 four-seam fastballs this season, Kimbrel ranks an easy first in swinging-strike rate, at 27%. It’s been no contest. At the same time, out of all the pitchers who have thrown at least 50 curveballs this season, Kimbrel ranks 17th in swinging-strike rate. Just by contact rate, he ranks fifth, so he’s still throwing a curveball that’s tough to square up. Both pitches are working. They’d have to be, to lead to numbers like Kimbrel’s.

There’s one more thing. Kimbrel has always thrown just the two pitches. Here’s how he’s mixed them up by situation over his career, expressed by fastball rate. You see his rate of fastballs thrown when behind or even in the count, and then when ahead in the count.

Classically, when pitchers are even or behind, they’ve thrown fastballs more often. And when ahead, they’ve thrown fastballs less often. Kimbrel used to follow the same pattern, but so far in 2017 he hasn’t. He’s thrown a career-low rate of fastballs in more typical fastball counts, and a career-high rate of fastballs in more typical breaking-ball counts. In short, even though Kimbrel has just two pitches, he’s tougher than ever to predict. It’s not so easy for hitters to guess what’s on the way, and that’s what you can do when you have command of a blazing heater that touches triple digits. It makes both of Kimbrel’s pitches better, and the result is a near-automatic shutdown inning.

Craig Kimbrel, today, is healthy. Craig Kimbrel, today, is throwing free and easy. At no point did his stuff ever leave him, and now he has the best command of it he’s had in some years. Throw in some improved unpredictability and you have an unhittable closer. A closer who doesn’t even have to go outside of the zone to miss bats. Kimbrel can’t always be this good, but he’s done it for a whole season before. The scariest thing is this isn’t coming out of nowhere.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
6 years ago

It’s worth noting that Kimbrel gave up a walk-off homer to Ryon Healy a couple games ago that JBJ robbed pretty spectacularly

6 years ago
Reply to  j-bones

Wasn’t that spectacular. You saw his reaction. Everyday stuff

White Jar
6 years ago
Reply to  carter

Just your everyday game saving robbed HR against an elite closer.