How Effective Can Red Sox Closer Craig Kimbrel Be?

Before the 2016 season, the Red Sox traded four prospects to San Diego in exchange for right-handed closer Craig Kimbrel. Kimbrel had been an elite closer for several years, and with Koji Uehara starting to show his age, Kimbrel was expected to perform at the league-leading level he had shown for the previous five years, when he put up ERA+ ranging from 145 to 399. For the Red Sox in 2016, Kimbrel was good, but not the elite closer they had hoped for. He produced 31 saves in 57 appearances with two blown opportunities and a 2-6 win-loss record, ending with a 3.40 ERA (135 ERA+) — the worst of his career — and a 1.094 WHIP. His walk rate of 5.1 BB/9 was his highest, by far, since he was a 22-year-old rookie in 2010. He spent nearly a month on the disabled list with a torn meniscus, but his performances before and after his DL stints were very similar.

What he throws. Kimbrel throws just two pitches, a four-seam fastball (“FF”) and a curve with a knuckle grip (knuckle curve, “KC”). This is the same pitch mix he has used since entering the major leagues in 2009. His fastball is among the hardest in baseball. With an average velocity of 97.8 mph and maxing out at just over 100 mph, it ranked sixth-fastest among right-handed pitchers who threw at least 100 fastballs in 2016. His curve is also exceptionally fast, in the mid-80s:

Pitch usage and trends. Kimbrel’s fastball and curve form about a 70-30 mix (69.1% vs 30.9%). Kimbrel has very little platoon split (right-handed batters had a .559 OPS against him in 2016, compared to left-handed batters’ .514) and he hardly changes his mix for right- and left-handed batters. When behind in the count, he is much less likely to throw his curve, but he has a very high first-pitch strike rate (68.2% in 2016, 11th in baseball for pitchers with at least 50 innings) so doesn’t fall behind very often:

Early in the season, Kimbrel threw slightly more fastballs, but by May his repertoire had settled into its usual pattern. (The vertical line in the chart below indicates Kimbrel’s DL stint.)

Pitch value. Even though Kimbrel had an off year, for him, both his pitches were very effective in terms of limiting total bases per 100 pitches. His fastball was considerably better than the average pitcher’s, and his curve was excellent. However, his curve had higher than average ball percentage, especially to right-handed batters:

Pitch location. Kimbrel’s fastball tended to be up and outside to left-handed hitters, down and out to righties. His curve was down and inside to LHB, outside and very far down to RHB. Many of his curves fell out of the strike zone, although batters still chased them reasonably frequently as shown by the ball/100 pitches rates:


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Featured image courtesy of Michael Ivins.

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