The Phillies Get to Spin the Craig Kimbrel Wheel

Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

Our story begins in June of 2019, when the Cubs took a chance on a still-unsigned Craig Kimbrel. What happened next can only be described as a disaster. Kimbrel gave up a preposterous number of home runs, almost single-handedly causing the Cubs to miss the playoffs. He didn’t show any signs of improvement the following season, and his once lustrous career looked just about over, seemingly bringing the Cubs’ three-year, $43 million investment down with him.

Then, a miracle: In the first half of 2021, Kimbrel returned to form. He trimmed the walks and home runs, and co-authored a no-hitter in the process. The Cubs traded him to the White Sox at the deadline, after which he became one of the worst relief pitchers in baseball. Kimbrel ended the year with a respectable 2.26 ERA, but consider how that’s split: a 0.49 ERA with the Cubs, a 5.09 ERA with the White Sox. That offseason, the Dodgers traded for Kimbrel, hunting for upside as they usually do. And despite the controversy surrounding his usage, Kimbrel finished the year with pedestrian numbers. He wasn’t a complete mess, but he wasn’t great, either.

All this brings us to the Phillies, who’ve signed the now 34-year-old closer to a one-year deal worth $10 million. I don’t know if there’s really such a thing as a “safe” reliever. What I do know is that Kimbrel is decidedly not one. His whole career post-Boston has been a series of ups and downs, the latter more frequent than the former. But given how shallow the market for relief pitching is this offseason, it seemed inevitable that someone would take a flier on him. Kimbrel, for better or worse, has become the Phillies’ problem to solve.

Is he a problem worth solving? I think so, despite how inscrutable – and therefore frustrating – Kimbrel may be. It’s probably a little naive to say nothing’s really changed about him, but that’s the conclusion I’ve been arriving at time and time again. For example, consider his fastball. As I explained last year, Kimbrel’s prime inspired people to dig into the importance of vertical approach angle, because movement data alone couldn’t explain why he was so dominant. You’d think that maybe Kimbrel hasn’t been able to maintain his low release point, which is necessary for creating a flat approach angle. That assumption would be wrong! Kimbrel’s release points from last season looked awfully like his career average marks. There was talk about how his mechanics were out of whack and how the Dodgers were trying to address them. But from what’s publicly available, it doesn’t seem like Kimbrel had much trouble releasing the ball the way he wanted.

What does stick out, at least to me, is that hitters seldom swung against a Kimbrel pitch outside the zone. This is a phenomenon limited (mostly) to last season – hitters have long been enticed by his arsenal, even during stretches when Kimbrel was a terrible, no-good pitcher. When hitters don’t chase after your pitches, you’re going to garner fewer whiffs. But more importantly, you’re probably going to allow more walks and hard contact, because hitters can just ignore whatever is outside the zone and focus on what’s inside the zone. “Just throw strikes!” is poor advice for Kimbrel, who in 2022 threw the third-highest rate of strikes in his career. In fact, I wonder if he was compensating for the sudden disappearances of chases, which couldn’t have gone unnoticed. For the most part, it didn’t work: Kimbrel gave up a bunch of hard-hit balls, found a little redemption in a Disney song, and ultimately failed to make the postseason roster.

The strange nature of Kimbrel’s 2022 gives way to a whole bunch of questions. Were his out-of-zone pitches so far away that hitters had no reason to swing at them? (I checked, but Kimbrel’s rate of uncompetitive pitches was no different than in previous years.) Is a good two-pitch tandem no longer enough to cruise to a sub-3.00 ERA, even as a reliever? Maybe you do need to get on Edwin Díaz’s level if you want to steamroll today’s highly-trained batters, but that was never the expectation for Kimbrel at this stage of his career. He should have been at least a good reliever, not an average one. There’s no use in thinking about what could have been, but it’s jarring to see his swing-and-miss stuff generate so few swings and misses.

If there’s hope, it’s that there is a precedent for this bizarre rut. Earlier, I noted that the confusing lack of out-of-zone swings was limited “mostly” to last season – for a reason. Back in 2015, Kimbrel experienced a similar problem, though he still delivered an excellent year. What happened the following season shouldn’t be much of a surprise: Hitters started chasing after Kimbrel’s pitches again, having forgotten what they learned a year prior. In all likelihood, Kimbrel is going to see his stuff working once more, and that might give him the confidence he needs – the confidence to perhaps not throw so many strikes. That sounds counterintuitive, but my hunch is that a deviation from his usual approach is part of why Kimbrel fell short last season.

But the trends described above also reveal one gigantic flaw. This isn’t an elephant in the room, so much as an elephant that’s escaped captivity and has trampled several innocent bystanders. All things considered, it probably isn’t due to chance that Kimbrel is so extreme. There are outings where he looks absolutely brilliant, his fastball and curveball in perfect sync, and then there are outings where he has absolutely nothing, making you sick with apprehension. Relievers are a capricious bunch, but Kimbrel, at least from what I can tell, stands above the rest. If we could quantify the volatility of a given player – I do think that’s possible – my guess is that Kimbrel would rank quite high in such a metric. The flip side of Kimbrel having solid overall stuff and command grades is that they seem like averages of really good outings and really bad ones.

This is no doubt a risky signing, but that’s not what’s surprising. What’s surprising is that the Phillies, of all teams, could afford to give Kimbrel a shot given their bullpen’s somewhat recent history. As you might have heard, at one point the Phillies not only had one of the worst bullpens in the league, but one of the worst bullpens ever. But they’re no longer the sloppy mess you used to know (and possibly ridicule). As of this writing, the Philadelphia ‘pen is ranked seventh on our relief pitching depth charts thanks to a formidable core of José Alvarado, Seranthony Domínguez, Andrew Bellatti, Connor Brogdon, and Matt Strahm, another free agent acquisition. Unlike in past years, even if Kimbrel utterly flops – and there is a realistic chance he does, mind you – the Phillies wouldn’t just capsize. This isn’t a repeat of Jeurys Familia, in other words. It makes sense that Kimbrel didn’t land with, say, the Rangers, whose bullpen is in need of consistency. The Phillies could afford to place a modest bet on Kimbrel, one that could produce a massive payout.

It’s unsettling that Kimbrel is still such an enigma. Is he one subtle adjustment away from finding his groove, or is he a ticking time bomb? With so much to discuss, I didn’t even mention perhaps the most obvious sign that Kimbrel’s time is running out: a career-low fastball velocity. Once velocity starts to slip, it basically never recovers; last season could have been an inflection point, and in that case, the Phillies might be in for an unpleasant ride. But I don’t blame them for wanting to see what’s under the hood. After all, three other teams have given the ol’ Kimbrel roulette a spin: The Cubs lost it all, then recovered enough to find a nice bit of compensation in Nick Madrigal. The White Sox, who provided said compensation, never even got to recoup their losses. The Dodgers – well, you could say they neither won nor lost. Will the Phillies be the ones to find success? The odds are against them, but they chose to find out exactly what those odds are.

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

The question remains: why was he so bad?