Craig Kimbrel has an elite fastball that routinely sits in the upper 90s, but the key to reestablishing Kimbrel’s dominance will center around his curveball, or slider, or knuckle-curve, or whatever you want to call it.
Kimbrel on Sunday night blew his first save of the season, but it wasn’t the first time he’d struggled in his brief time in a Boston Red Sox uniform. Kimbrel grooved a fastball to Colby Rasmus, and the Houston Astros outfielder made him pay, cleaning it out for a game-tying two-run home run in the ninth inning. The home run was the second Kimbrel’s allowed this season, raising his ERA to 5.00 and continuing an increasingly alarming string of inconsistency for the four-time All-Star.
The good news, however, is Kimbrel’s issues seem fixable. Again, for the flame-throwing right-hander to get right, he needs to throw his breaking ball better and more often.
“We’ve been working to gain the consistent shape. There’s been times where it’s gotten a little sweepy,” Red Sox manager John Farrell said of Kimbrel’s breaking ball, per the Boston Herald. “He’s pulled it off the plate where it hasn’t been in the strike zone as consistently as it historically has been.”
The results spoke for themselves Sunday night.
Kimbrel got two quick outs against Houston, including getting George Springer to chase this devastating breaking ball off the plate that was unhittable.
That brought Carlos Correa to the plate. Kimbrel fell behind 3-1 with nothing but fastballs — which really doesn’t help when you’re battling inconsistency with your secondary offerings — and Correa doubled to right.
Rasmus followed. He swung through a 98-mph fastball to start the at-bat, but that apparently was enough to time up Kimbrel. The right-hander’s second 98-mph pitch was right down Broadway, and Rasmus hammered it.
And there’s the problem with Kimbrel right now. If your secondary pitches aren’t dependable, especially when you only throw two pitches, it allows hitters to gear up for the fastball. That’s especially true for hitters like Rasmus who are fastball hitters, even when said fastballs approach 100 mph.
Kimbrel’s pitch logs for the season tell the story. It should go without saying, but when he has confidence in the breaking ball, he throws it more often.
Kimbrel’s two most impressive outing in a Red Sox uniform came during Boston’s first homestand. On April 13 against Baltimore and April 16 against Toronto, he tore through the heart of two of the American League’s best lineups. Kimbrel struck out all six batters he faced, five of whom combined to hit 178 home runs last season.
The highlight of those two outings was this ungodly pitch to Edwin Encarnacion, which the Toronto slugger missed by roughly a foot and a half.
The biggest thing that stands out about those two dominant appearances, in which Kimbrel threw 32 combined pitches, is that he threw 32 pitches — 11 of them, more than a third, were breaking balls.
In Kimbrel’s last four appearances, including Sunday night, he threw 60 pitches — with just six breaking balls.
This is oversimplifying things just a tad. If it were this simple, Kimbrel would have fixed it already. Better fastball command wouldn’t hurt, either. If Kimbrel was locating his fastball consistently, hitters would still chase breaking balls out of the zone (see Encarnacion above). Kimbrel himself lamented a missed spot against Rasmus on Sunday night.
The Red Sox need Kimbrel to be better with both of his pitches, but 98 mph is 98 mph. Kimbrel can get by with just the fastball, but there will be bumps in the road along the way. If and when he refinds his curveball, there’s no doubting he’ll be back to being the pitcher the Red Sox mortaged part of their future to get.
Thumbnail photo via Troy Taormina/USA TODAY Sports Images