Craig Kimbrel Is Multiple Dilemmas in One Pitcher

Craig Kimbrel
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

On Wednesday against the Brewers, Craig Kimbrel achieved a feat that had eluded him for months: converting a save opportunity with a one-run lead. But in true Kimbrel fashion, he did so on a tightrope. The Dodgers’ closer allowed a hit, a walk, and failed to strike out a single batter, completing what was a thoroughly underwhelming and yet nail-biting ninth inning.

Those three sentences pretty much sum up the entirety of Kimbrel’s 2022 to date. Clean outings have been few and far between, and when he does manage to put up a zero, such an effort is seldom characterized by the dominance we’ve come to associate with the All-Star closer. For now, forget what the granular numbers say. Kimbrel, as I type this out, is the owner of a 4.46 ERA in 42.1 innings, a cumulation of inefficient pitching and a tendency for batters to figure out how they’ll ambush his otherwise formidable stuff. It’s troublesome, especially for a team with playoff aspirations.

But if the Dodgers are concerned, they haven’t been keen on expressing that. The day prior to Wednesday’s scoreless outing, Kimbrel coughed up two runs en route to an extra-innings loss against the Brewers, but in a post-game interview, Dave Roberts drew the ire of fans by stating that he thought Kimbrel threw the ball well. It’s not as if the Dodgers’ skipper had the option of throwing his star reliever under the bus, but regardless, the obliviousness he displayed came off as puzzling. Objectively, Kimbrel had not thrown the ball well. What the heck did Roberts see that thousands of fans did not?

In the modern game, the role of a manager is partly that of a liaison, a link between the analytically-minded front offices, players and coaches who may skew more traditional, and the media as a whole. As communicators, they must relay ideas and opinions through words that can be understood by everyone at the table. They can’t just point to a chart and say, “Well actually, his Stuff+ this outing was such and such,” lest they be ridiculed and chastised as a clueless nerd who has no place in the game. Roberts wanted to distill a potentially controversial idea — that Kimbrel is still a great reliever, and that luck hasn’t been on his side — into a few accessible sentences. His focus wasn’t so much on Kimbrel’s recent outing as it was on the entire season.

Could he have expressed himself in a more nuanced manner? Sure. Would his remarks have been better received if they also addressed Kimbrel’s shortcomings? Absolutely. The thing is, Roberts isn’t off-base here. Kimbrel really isn’t pitching like someone who deserves an ERA in the mid-4s. When hitters put the ball in play against him, they’re averaging a .388 BABIP, and it’s those bloop hits that have snowballed into disaster outings. And it’s not as if Kimbrel is allowing a ton of contact; his strikeout rate has dwindled, but not to an extent that would account for why opposing hitters are turning into Tim Anderson circa 2019.

But okay, maybe his pitch quality and locations are worse, which is why Kimbrel has been oddly accommodating. Bad news: According to Eno Sarris’ model, Kimbrel is currently is a top-ten reliever by stuff; by Pitching+, which combines stuff, command, and miscellaneous variables like platoon splits, he’s in the top 20. On the other side of the internet, Cameron Grove’s model has Kimbrel’s as the 11th-best pitcher in baseball, period, with only his curveball command worse compared to last season. Not only are Kimbrel’s underlying numbers good, but so are the underlying numbers of those underlying numbers.

Kimbrel has long been adored by the sabermetric community. In fact, he’s the guy who inspired research on the importance of approach angle, because pitch movement and velocity alone failed to demystify his success. In that sense, it’s ironic how the latest in baseball analytics is unable to comprehend his failure. It could be the issue is something the public lacks the ability to quantify. Earlier in the season, Roberts mentioned that Kimbrel’s delivery had become too “rotational,” but it’s unclear whether it’s been fixed. If we look at release point, though, any difference compared to last season is within the margin of error. I’m assuming the Dodgers know a whole lot more than we do, but when things are kept simple, as they often should be, there’s little amiss with Kimbrel, mechanics-wise.

Whatever is ailing Kimbrel, the Dodgers remain confident that it’s a temporary malaise. Surely, he won’t be this unreliable forever. But such an assumption is dangerous, because baseball has a cruel tendency to skirt expectations, reminding of us how capricious life can be. Just a few years ago, another A-list reliever heaved under the weight of an unfathomable season. Edwin Díaz may be dominant now, but when he first arrived in Queens in 2019, he put up an absolute train-wreck of a season. His FIP was in the mid-4s, and his ERA was in the mid-5s. Despite possessing one of the best strikeout-minus-walk rates in the league, he was ruined by one fatal flaw: a never-ending parade of home runs. All those balls shouldn’t have left the yard, even with extra juice in them, but they did. None of it made any sense.

There’s absolutely no guarantee that Kimbrel’s BABIP will climb down, or that he’ll stumble into favorable sequences of events. In error distributions of baseball projections, there are, without fail, a few individuals at the tail ends — pitchers or hitters who either fared better or worse than their projected outcomes by gargantuan extents. It’s easy to imagine Kimbrel ending the season as a demonstration of the laws of statistics.

So while Kimbrel might be fine, with the Dodgers confident in his stuff, command, mechanics and whatnot, there remains an utter lack of certainty. He could be fine starting tomorrow, or he could continue to falter. Given this predicament, it’s curious why they have yet to remove Kimbrel from the closer role. If he figures himself out in lower-leverage situations, great! Put him back into the ninth. If he doesn’t, his struggles would stand to have a lesser impact on the outcome of the game. On paper, it’s a win-win situation, with the Dodgers able to use their big-name offseason acquisition without having to risk late-game losses.

But seemingly smart organizations can be uptight about reliever roles for legitimate reasons. The simplest of them all is that Kimbrel might be strongly against the idea of appearing before the ninth inning. The atmosphere and chemistry of a clubhouse matter, as the players within it can attest. Not that the Dodgers should coddle Kimbrel, but with a 17-game division lead, they of all teams can afford not to shake up the regular season status quo. And as Fabian Ardaya of The Athletic has pointed out, Roberts hinted at adjusting the bullpen hierarchy come October, so there’s that. Right now, perhaps the Dodgers believe the intangible benefits of sticking with their closer outweigh the potential benefits of a bullpen shake-up.

In all facets, Kimbrel’s season has been weird. He might not be the indestructible reliever he once was, but he also shouldn’t be this mediocre. That said, don’t be surprised if Kimbrel’s results this season never get to live up to his stuff and command. Often, the sport we love doesn’t go a great job at translating a solid process into a solid outcome. Kimbrel, despite efforts to fix his mechanics and avoid falling behind in counts, can appear as if he’s still defective, swallowed up by the vagaries of baseball. It’s why the Dodgers have a difficult decision on their hands, one that isn’t immediately solved by removing him from the closer role. For now, they’ve decided to stay put. But it will be intriguing to see how they navigate these turbulent waters come October.

Justin is a contributor at FanGraphs. His previous work can be found at Prospects365 and Dodgers Digest. His less serious work can be found on Twitter @justinochoi.

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1 year ago

That first paragraph gave me mid 2000s Jason Isringhausen flashbacks.

Last edited 1 year ago by MorboTheAnnihilator