Craig Kimbrel basically has been unstoppable in 19 appearances for the Boston Red Sox this season, but the 28-year-old didn’t have to change much to get there.
Kimbrel’s pitching was once the stuff of legend, but as more hard-throwing strikeout relievers came onto the scene, Kimbrel’s shine wore off a bit. And when the closer was traded to the Red Sox before the 2016 season and turned in a 3.40 ERA in 57 appearances while pitching through a knee injury, some wondered if he even had what it took to be a closer anymore.
But that’s pretty hard to say now when Kimbrel has a 0.92 ERA, a ridiculous 0.41 WHIP, a .092 opponent batting average, 36 strikeouts and just two walks over 19 2/3 innings.
As FanGraphs’ Jeff Sullivan pointed out in a column Monday, Kimbrel’s always had the same stuff as he did during his best season in 2012, but this year, he’s using it more efficiently. Namely, Kimbrel has near-perfect command and has been switching up how he uses his two pitches — a high-90s fastball and a high-80s curveball — to fool batters.
As a result, Sullivan found that while pitchers with similar zone rates to Kimbrel’s have allowed contact in the strike zone more than 80 percent of the time, Kimbrel has allowed in-zone contact a little more than 60 percent of the time. And out of all pitchers who have thrown at least 100 four-seamers this season, Kimbrel’s 27 percent swinging strike rate ranks first.
It’s not only Kimbrel’s command that’s gotten him there, either, as he’s also using his pitches in situations that batters won’t expect them. He’s been using his fastball when he’s ahead in the count — which is when batters would expect a breaking pitch — more often than when he’s behind, and he’s been throwing his curveball in situations where most pitchers would throw a fastball.
The Red Sox have had some bad luck with injuries to their bullpen already, but a healthy Kimbrel has made all the difference.
Thumbnail photo via Neville E. Guard/USA TODAY Sports Images