Since his debut, and his earning of the closer role in Atlanta, Craig Kimbrel has been nothing but money. He has been a fantasy darling, constantly pushing the limit on how early is too early to draft a closer. His dazzling strikeout rates (50.2% in 2012) combined with the successful teams he has been on (more save opportunities) have led to him becoming perhaps the most elite shutdown closer in the league.
But even though his 2015 effort was another stellar one, if we look deeply into Kimbrel, he isn’t looking quite as rosy. Yeah his ERA shot up almost a full run, but still at just 2.58 – even considering how volatile reliever ERAs can be, this isn’t where the worry lies. Instead we look more to his strikeouts. No one could reasonably expect him to continue to strikeout over half the batters he faces, but he’s on a four-year consecutive decline for strikeouts. While he’s still at an impressive 36.4%, it’s a career worst mark. And that’s a real reason for concern.
Over half of his career strikeouts have come off of his fastball (293 compared to 266 offspeed) – something unusual for most pitchers to rely on a relatively straight pitch for so many whiffs. But Kimbrel’s heater is, in fact, an unusual pitch. He’s been able to get over six inches of arm side run as well as eight inches of vertical “pop” all while throwing in the upper 90’s. Hitting a baseball in general is hard enough, and there’s a reason it’s so hard to do so against Kimbrel. He leans on it heavily; although trying to use three pitches earlier in his career, he’s now using the fastball around 70% of the time. (An interesting side note on his velocity, the average speed of his fastball has increased every season that he’s been in the majors).
Last year we saw Kimbrel’s overall run suppression lose its effectiveness, and we’re left wondering how much is real and how much is noise (and the team he played on). Looking at his best friend, the heater, it lost considerable value in 2015. By pitch weighted values, Kimbrel’s fastball has usually been in the mid teens, being around 14 runs above the average fastball. Last year that value was down to just five runs above average, and while that’s still good, it isn’t good enough for him to throw it as much as he likes while still getting the results that his fantasy owners salivate over.
The biggest difference in the fastball that we’ve seen seems counter intuitive towards explaining a decline of any sorts, but bear with me. The problem is that hitters are swinging considerably more at the pitch. But not just overall; only in the strike zone. In 2015 hitters swung at 73% of fastballs in the zone compared to a career average of just 66%. And since the best place to hit a pitch tends to be in the strike zone (this is the more intuitive part), hitters are doing better. Line drive percentage against it has been 25% over his career, but skyrocketed to 34% last season with hitters swinging so much more.
Perhaps the hardest part in the sport of baseball is the constant adjustments that must be made simply to stay at whatever level the player is currently at, and Kimbrel is facing that now. Hitters, after years of toiling in fruitless endeavors against him, have seemingly found part of the book on how to break one of the most electric closers the sport has to offer. And while his slider is still a fantastic pitch in its own right, he needs his fastball to be as effective as it has been to stay at his level.
With his best pitch losing its mojo, we can draw some concern to Kimbrel. In a city that is in love with winning, as well as finding scapegoats for when they aren’t, he needs instant success to be secure with his job. And with the Sox adding Carson Smith from the Mariners in the Wade Miley deal, there’s another shut down reliever right on his tail. Plenty of pitchers have trouble pitching in the awkwardness of Fenway, as well as the incredible pressure dealt by the Beantown fans, and Kimbrel’s new atmosphere is enough to make me weary of his value compared to what he’s been getting.
Also let’s not forget the tough division he is now in. Although some of the premier hitters the AL East offers are on his own team, and by definition he won’t have to worry about them, there are still plenty of dangerous hitters. The Blue Jays basically mashed their way to the ALCS last season; the Yankees always have firepower (even though it is aging); the Orioles boast the monster Chris Davis as well as Manny Machado, Adam Jones and some depth power, and even the Rays have added some power in Corey Dickerson, plus the existing Evan Longoria.
Craig Kimbrel is by no means finished in the league (although Boston does have a tendency to turn great closers into ghosts), but a less effective fastball could turn what seem like small problems into much larger ones. He’s in a tougher park, in a tougher division, with an uphill battle now that hitters are adjusting approaches. Craig Kimbrel is a good pitcher, but his name holds more value than his arm.
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