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Deal completed, Kimbrel introduced by Cubs

Newson June 7th, 2019No Comments

CHICAGO — Jon Lester likened the addition of elite closer Craig Kimbrel to getting a Christmas present, but then being told it has to stay in its wrapping for at least another week. When the gift is opened, though, it will still be exactly what the Cubs wanted.

On Friday morning, Chicago made it official: Kimbrel is a Cub. The team announced the news that spread like wildfire throughout Wednesday, when an agreement was in place with the seven-time All-Star on a three-year contract worth a reported $43 million. Kimbrel will be with the Cubs through 2021, and his deal includes a vesting-or-club option for the ’22 campaign.

The timing was critical, in the view of Anthony Rizzo.

“It’s early, too. We need to win every single game,” Rizzo said on Wednesday night. “Every game is important. It’s going to come down to the wire. The National League is too good this year. We can’t take any win for granted.”

The Cubs and Kimbrel held an introductory news conference at Wrigley Field prior to Friday’s game against the Cardinals.

“We could see the prolonged time that this might take, and I worked out accordingly,” Kimbrel said. “At this point I’ve probably long tossed and thrown as many bullpens as I ever have. But I definitely feel good and ready to go.

“This isn’t about getting back on the field as fast as I can; this is about being the best I can be in October and down the stretch and doing what I came to do for this team.”

According to reports, Kimbrel will earn $10 million this year, followed by $16 million in both 2020 and ’21. If his option for ’22 does not vest, the Cubs will have a $16 million club option, or a $1 million buyout, for a fourth year. There will be salary coming off the books in the upcoming seasons, but the Cubs made it known since early in the offseason that there was little financial wiggle room for this year.

“As soon as [Cubs president] Theo [Epstein] and David [Meter, Kimbrel’s agent] got on the phone, we knew this was moving in the right direction,” Kimbrel said. “Just by the conversation, the back and forth and the willingness to negotiate and get to this point. We both wanted this to happen, and that’s why I’m here.”

Epstein said he received positive reports from one of Kimbrel’s recent bullpen sessions.

“We sent one of our scouts Joe Nelson and our super-scout, David Ross, to go see the workout. Rossy actually caught Craig’s first pitch he ever threw in the big leagues, and he was there watching Craig throw a bullpen getting ready to sign as a free agent. That bullpen went extremely well; both guys reported that he was in midseason form. Everything was working great, the ball was coming out really well.

“We continued to talk and it just became clear that Craig was serious about his interest in the Cubs. If there was any chance to get this done, we wanted to make it happen. We saw it as a unique opportunity — I mean how often can you add an elite closer like Craig, someone who’s arguably on a Hall of Fame trajectory, with the need that we have midseason without giving up any prospects? It’s such a great opportunity for the Cubs, and so we all sat down and said, ‘If there’s a way to make this happen, we want Craig to be wearing a Cubs uniform.”

Part of the payroll equation was altered when 38-year-old veteran Ben Zobrist was placed on the restricted list on May 8 to tend to a family matter. Zobrist’s return this season is uncertain, meaning Chicago would have north of $9 million of his $12.5 million ’19 salary to reallocate if he is not activated for the remainder of the season. Epstein said Wednesday that he has kept in contact with Zobrist, but there is still no timetable.

Even with the unexpected budget room, the Cubs had to play well enough to convince the front office to go all in on this type of transaction this early. While there have been inconsistencies on the roster, the group once again looks like a legitimate World Series contender. The one area clearly in need of an upgrade was the back of the bullpen.

“It’s a long way to the Trade Deadline,” Epstein said. “But, I think we’ve shown we have a lot of talent, and I think the way we bounced back from that early-season adversity, we’ve shown some character. … I think there have been some really nice performances out of the ‘pen, but it’s certainly an area that, as I’ve said earlier, we plan to be aggressive, if an addition can help guys slot into the right spots.”

From Day 1 of the offseason, Kimbrel looked like the most logical solution. Kimbrel, 31, has a career 1.91 ERA to go along with 333 saves and 14.7 strikeouts per nine innings over nine seasons in the Majors. Last season, the right-hander had a 2.74 ERA with 96 strikeouts against 31 walks in 62 1/3 innings for the Red Sox.

With the MLB Draft now in the rear-view mirror, his signing no longer comes with draft-pick compensation attached. That, combined with the financial component, made this the time for Epstein to strike with another in a long list of blockbuster moves to bolster his ballclub.

Even so, Lester felt the move would not have been possible without the team’s play on the field.

“If we’re not playing that well and our record is a little bit different,” Lester said, “I think that probably changes their outlook on things. … [The front office] stepped up big for us. That’s a huge thing for us.”

Now, Lester will just have to wait for the present to arrive.

“I just hope he can get here soon and get in uniform,” Lester said.

Manager Joe Maddon echoed that sentiment.

“The support you get coming from up above really indicates what everybody feels about your group, the expectations and also the possibilities,” Maddon said. “When you’re able to add a piece like this now, ahead of the normal Deadline, that’s even more impressive I think.

“I can see the guys smiling easily. It gives you that playoff vibe a little bit earlier I think. But more than anything, I do believe I’ve learned about players in the clubhouse is that when they feel the support from upstairs, it really matters a lot to them.”

Red Sox World Series: Craig Kimbrel’s emotional year, on and off the field, ends on a high note

Newson October 29th, 2018No Comments

LOS ANGELES – Shortly after the Red Sox had been presented the World Series trophy, Sunday night, Craig Kimbrel danced with his daughter.

The long-bearded closer and the toddler both laughed gleefully, as his the high notes of Kimbrel’s his personal and professional life came together on the field at Dodger Stadium.

Just under a year ago, Craig and Ashley Kimbrel’s lives were in upheaval when their newborn daughter Lydia Joy was born with a heart defect that required multiple surgeries at Boston Children’s Hospital. It affected his offseason training and limited his time in spring training.

Kimbrel said the stress of seeing his daughter battle helped keep baseball, and the seemingly stressful role of a closer, in perspective all year.

“Pressure from a ballgame is nothing like pressure of a life and seeing someone go through that especially if it’s your daughter,” Kimbrel said. “Our perspective changes. What’s important changes. Providing her with everything she needs and being in a city where we could do it, I couldn’t feel more blessed or be in a better place.”

With two surgeries behind her, Lydia Joy Kimbrel was healthy enough to go to the All-Star game in July and to the World Series. While she obviously doesn’t understand baseball of the magnitude of the World Series, Kimbrel was thrilled to share the moment.

“She was here. A lot of people were praying for her and thinking of her throughout the entire year. She makes me take every day one day at a time. Nothing’s for granted,” he said. “I know how special life is and moments like this are and how important it is to share it with everyone around you.”

On Saturday, the Kimbrel’s will celebrate again. It won’t be as grand as the World Series, but knowing what Lydia has been through, her first birthday is a special milestone.

“I can’t wait to get home and celebrate it,” Kimbrel said.

Kimbrel fastest to 300 saves in Red Sox win

Newson May 6th, 2018No Comments

ARLINGTON — If Saturday night’s game had been played at Fenway Park, Craig Kimbrel would have received a thunderous ovation from the crowd when he nailed down his 300th save, becoming the fastest pitcher in history to reach that milestone.

Instead, the ovation was waiting for Kimbrel when he returned to the clubhouse after pinning down a 6-5 win for the Red Sox over the Rangers at Globe Life Park.

Kimbrel’s teammates and coaches were all there waiting for him, and they celebrated his accomplishment.

“They clapped for a long time,” Kimbrel said. “It was nice to have these guys behind me and to show their appreciation for me — it’s really neat. Everything I do every night is to go out there and make sure what they do counts so it was really neat for them to be waiting on me. They’re waiting on me a lot, usually for a bus — not for me to get back in the clubhouse. It was very nice and I’m glad they did that.”

The warmth from his teammates was the recognition not only for what Kimbrel has done in his career, but also for what he has gone through over the last several months.

Kimbrel’s daughter Lydia Joy was born last November with a heart defect, and had her first surgery at four days old. There would be another surgery in March, and Kimbrel missed much of Spring Training as he helped his wife Ashley care for Lydia.

“I think he got emotional,” manager Alex Cora said. “We’ve been going through a lot together as a team. There’s been more positive things happening to him off the field lately than on the field and he’s been great on the field. That gives us a lot of energy.

“She was with us on the last day of the homestand and she was smiling, and the way he’s carrying her is — it’s unreal what he’s doing to be honest. For him to be locked in here with us and giving his best while everything was happening with us in Spring Training and everything that is happening with his life is unreal.”

The hard-throwing righty, who is building credentials that could one day land him in the Hall of Fame, is the 29th pitcher in history to record 300 saves.

But Kimbrel was the swiftest to reach the feat by appearances (494), save opportunities (330) and age (29).

Fittingly, the milestone occurred on a significant anniversary.

“It feels like forever and also feels like it’s flown by,” Kimbrel said. “Eight years ago today, I got called up for the first time so it’s neat to go get my 300th save on the same day and it’s great. I’ve been a part of a lot of great teams, a lot of save opportunities, a lot of chances. If it wasn’t for that, we wouldn’t be talking today so I’m very grateful for that.”

Kimbrel motivated, focused on daughter

Newson March 17th, 2018No Comments

Closer says Lydia Joy, who was born with heart defects, is ‘doing great overall’

MASHANTUCKET, Conn. — Red Sox closer Craig Kimbrel‘s daughter, Lydia Joy, was born on Nov. 3, and he describes parenting his first child with his wife, Ashley, as, “one of the happiest, joyful times of our life.”

But it has also been a roller coaster of emotions.

Kimbrel revealed at Red Sox Winter Weekend on Saturday that his daughter was born with “heart defects.” Craig and Ashley learned this would be the case for their daughter back in June, when she was still in utero.

At 4 days old, Lydia Joy had her first surgery. There will be another one during Spring Training, at which point Kimbrel will come back to Boston for about a week.

“Right now, if everybody can just have us in their prayers,” said Kimbrel. “She’s doing great overall. She’s doing fantastic.”

As far as a specific diagnosis, Kimbrel didn’t want to reveal it at this time.

“It’s something that’s uncommon but common. Travis Shaw‘s daughter was kind of going through the same thing last year,” Kimbrel said. “But being in Boston, we feel blessed, because the doctors are the best in the world. Being able to work with them has been great.”

Due to his daughter’s situation, Kimbrel has spent his entire offseason in Boston. He has been working out daily at Fenway either late at night or early in the morning.

Despite what is going on at home, Kimbrel has remained focused at putting in the necessary steps to have another big season for Boston. Last season was one of the best for a closer in Red Sox history, as Kimbrel had a 1.43 ERA, 126 strikeouts and 14 walks in 69 innings.

Video: Kimbrel takes home the AL Reliever of the Year Award

“It’s actually motivated me even more,” Kimbrel said. “They always say when you have a child, things change, and they have. I’m definitely more focused toward her and her needs and our family needs. It’s just one day at a time and giving everything I’ve got. It’s real easy to look at her and understand everything I’m doing is for her, and it makes it a lot easier.”

Red Sox closer Craig Kimbrel is compiling one of the greatest seasons ever

Newson June 19th, 2017No Comments

When Craig Kimbrel stepped on the pitching rubber at Yankee Stadium on June 6 and took his predatory, pterodactylian pose—bent at the waist, right arm held askance like an open wing—what had been a taut baseball game between New York and Boston, with its usual parry and thrust, instantly became something else. It became a one-man Broadway show, a well-attended game of catch between Kimbrel and his catcher, Christian Vázquez, and an emphatic statement about relief pitching evolved to its highest order.

Summoned in the eighth inning, Kimbrel would throw 30 pitches to close a 5–4 Red Sox win. The Yankees put none of them in play. Kimbrel obtained the final four outs while striking out five batters, the overage due to a devious 88-mph curveball that was as hard for Vázquez to catch as it was for the batter, Didi Gregorius, to hit. The outing made Kimbrel the first pitcher in history with three games in which he recorded more strikeouts than outs while working at least one inning.

Such lack of contact has become routine against Kimbrel. He is a human mute button. Never has a baseball been more unhittable than when Kimbrel throws it. Already the toughest pitcher to hit with at least 400 career innings (.152 batting average against), Kimbrel is building what could be the most unhittable season in history. Opponents are batting .086 against him, which would blow away the record by a pitcher with at least 60 innings. Naturally, that record (.126) is held by Kimbrel, vintage 2012.

In 30 appearances this year Kimbrel has allowed only 46 balls to be put in play. He gave up one hit in May. Righthanded batters began the year 0 for 47 against him. He has faced 111 batters and struck out 59, an all-time-record rate of 53.2%, while walking only five.

“You couldn’t even do that in a video game,” says Boston reliever Joe Kelly. “The game won’t even let you strike out that many. And he’s doing it in the major leagues. He has the best stuff I’ve ever seen.”

Relief pitching is the monster that is swallowing baseball as we used to know it, and it is growing. Relievers threw more innings last year than in any other season in history, and they are on pace to break that record this year. Buoyed by increased velocity and a growing inventory of power arms, teams are making a priority of not just getting outs from relievers but also keeping the ball out of play. The 10 highest bullpen strikeout rates of all time have occurred in the past 10 seasons, and this year’s rate for the first time has cracked the threshold of one strikeout per inning.

Offense is wilting in the back half of games. Hitters are batting .244 against relievers, a number that could challenge the lowest mark in history—.237 in 1968, when offense was at its modern nadir and bullpens threw half as many innings as today. There is no foreseeable end to the trend. Last year 36 major leaguers, including Kimbrel, threw 100 mph, according to Statcast data. Meanwhile, at least 71 minor league pitchers hit 100, according to Baseball America, a 37% increase in minor league triple-digit flamethrowers in just three years.

Kimbrel is the standard-bearer for this movement of ferocious pitching, unlikely considering he’s barely 6 feet, went 3–7 as an undrafted 160-pound high school senior, was demoted to low A ball in his second year in the minors, has a soft philanthropic heart, rides his bicycle to Fenway Park, is so laid back that he naps before the first pitch, and he blows up hitters without taunts or gamesmanship. Opposing fans have a hard time working up dislike for him.

“People hate me just because of the uniform I’m wearing,” he says. “They don’t know who I am. Honestly, I can’t even say that’s their true feeling. It’s more like, ‘O.K., I feel like I need to yell at you. I feel like I need to rag you.’

“I love it. God gave me the ability to throw a baseball, and I get to do it with conviction against the best in the world every night.”

Al Tielemans/SI

To hear Kimbrel tell the story, his power may be divinely bestowed, but sheetrock enhanced it. From the time he was 12, Kimbrel would work summers as a helping hand for his father, Mike, an electrician in Huntsville, Ala. One day in 2006, after graduating from Lee High and having committed to pitch at Wallace State, a junior college in Hanceville, Ala., Craig was on a residential job with a friend and Matt, one of Craig’s brothers. Mike was working on another house.

Craig and his friend needed to install an outlet in the kitchen. First they’d have to move a stack of about a dozen sheetrock panels that leaned against a wall. “We grabbed the sheetrock, and all of a sudden the whole stack was coming down on me,” Craig says. “It happened real fast. I tried to get out of the way, but it didn’t work out so well. The sheetrock fell on my left foot and broke it. They rushed me to the hospital.”

Kimbrel’s foot was in a cast for three months. To keep his arm fresh, he would play long toss from his knees at a nearby soccer field. He would throw a yellow, dimpled, rubber-coated ball the length of the field over and over. Kimbrel believes this not only increased his arm strength but also allowed him to learn about generating power from his torso by being forced to isolate his upper body. (Limited from workouts by the cast, he also gained weight; he now weighs 200 pounds.)

Not long after returning to pitch in the spring as a starter, Kimbrel, who threw in the low 90s in high school, hit 95. The Braves, his favorite team, drafted him in the 33rd round, but Kimbrel returned to Wallace State for a second season. Atlanta drafted him again—this time 30 rounds earlier. The Braves took stock of a short, righthanded pitcher with a power arm and a mediocre changeup and immediately told him his future would be in the bullpen.

“I didn’t want to do it at first,” he says. “Everybody wants to start. But when they told me I’d probably get to the big leagues faster if I was in the bullpen, I was like, ‘O.K. That’s fine.’

“The key for me is every pitch I throw, I want to throw like, ‘I’m trying to get this by you.’ Starters can’t always do that.”

Specialization suits an all-out pitcher who doesn’t have a third pitch. Kimbrel has appeared in 575 professional games, all but one (on a rehab assignment last year) in relief, and never thrown more than three innings. He has never faced a major league hitter for the second time in a game.

His path to the majors took a detour in 2009 when the Braves demoted him and his 10.97 ERA from high A Myrtle Beach to low A Rome. Kimbrel had tried to improve his changeup, an effort that caused him to lose his arm slot, his control and his velocity. The pitching coach at Rome, Jim Czajkowski, gave Kimbrel some advice: “Forget throwing the changeup. Just be an aggressive pitcher. Go get ’em. You’ll quit dropping your arm and you’ll quit walking guys.’ ”

Says Kimbrel, “That’s what I’ve done ever since.”

He was in the big leagues the next spring at age 21 and was named the National League Rookie of the Year the following season. During those years with the Braves, Kimbrel was so touched by team visits to children’s hospitals that he and his wife, Ashley, began regularly donating time and money to support pediatric cancer research and treatment. The couple is expecting their first child in November.

“We all at one point looked up to ballplayers,” says Kimbrel, “so it’s important to understand there’s children out there doing the same to you.” He regularly receives fan mail from kids who are “Kimbreling,” posing in the idiosyncratic pre-pitch stance he began using in the 2010 postseason. (“I don’t know why I did it, but it worked, and when something works, you don’t change it,” he says.)

He wound up in Boston last year after trades by the rebuilding Braves and Padres. He has made five All-Star teams, led the league in saves four times (he leads again this season) and has seen his average fastball velocity increase from 95.3 as a rookie to a career-high 98.7 this year. Batters are hitting .079 this season against his fastball, the lowest batting average against that pitch in baseball.

“He’s just got the perfect fastball,” Kelly says. “He has the perfect spin rate, the perfect velocity and the perfect release. It’s truly rare. Even when I play catch with him, the ball comes out of his hand like nobody else’s. When I’m done playing catch with him I always retie the strings and laces on my glove because they come loose. Imagine trying to hit it.”

Says Yankees DH Matt Holliday, “First of all, he’s throwing 98, 99, so that’s hard enough. But there’s something about the way he throws it that makes it so difficult to track. You swing at one place, and very rarely does the ball end up at that place.”

Kimbrel’s fastball averages 2,324 revolutions per minute, slightly more than the major league average of 2,225. As important as the velocity or spin rate is the way Kimbrel throws the ball—and it goes back to the sheetrock accident.

Like great hitting, great pitching requires separate and sequential rotations—the turn of the hips followed by the turn of the torso, like one tornado atop another. After a pitcher brings the ball up to its loaded position, the hips fire first, followed by the torso, after which the arm and hand come around, using energy generated by the sequential cyclones.

Al Tielemans/SI

Drawing from that regimen when he used to throw from his knees, Kimbrel generates exquisitely timed and power-fully fast rotations. As his belt buckle turns toward the hitter in the first rotation, the boston across his jersey remains facing third base in a closed position to the batter’s box. When his torso finally does turn to deliver the arm and hand—with his chest leading toward the plate—a hitter perceives that his arm is coming around late.

With the late rotation, Kimbrel hides the ball longer from the hitter, and when he keeps his hand directly behind the ball from his low three-quarters delivery, he gets the “perfect fastball spin” that Kelly noted. It is true south-to-north backspin, the greatest gravity-fighting spin. The ball appears to “hop” to the hitter because it doesn’t sink the way normal fastballs do.

There is one more special ingredient to the Kimbrel heater: trajectory. The typical pitcher throws with a stride about equal to his height. At 5′ 11″, Kimbrel is an undersized pitcher with an above-average stride length: about 6′ 4″. Combining his short stature, his long stride and his low release point, Kimbrel lets go of the baseball only five feet off the ground—unusually low. Hitters are unaccustomed to seeing fastballs thrown with an overhand delivery so low to the ground. When Kimbrel throws at the top of the strike zone or above, as he often does, the baseball does not seem as if it’s traveling downhill, as hitters are accustomed to. It appears to stay on a flat plane or, when it’s especially high, to hit the catcher’s mitt higher off the ground than when it left his hand. “It looks like it’s coming out of his shirt and going up,” says Holliday.

Kimbrel’s odd flight path has been made more effective by the modern hitter’s preference for hitting up on the ball to create lift. Kimbrel says he has learned how to read hitters’ swings to know the proper planes on which to throw his fastball and curve.

“[A batter’s] swing plane is going to tell you what he can and cannot get to,” Kimbrel says. “I think your chances of getting a swing and miss or a pop-up is better because guys are hitting that low pitch now. It’s flip-flopped. When I first came up, it was, ‘Pound it down in the zone, pound it down in the zone.’ So now it’s, ‘Throw it up in the zone and throw your off-speed down in the zone.’ It’s been interesting to see it change in the last six, seven years.”

Kimbrel is perfectly equipped for this specialized game, especially now that manager John Farrell sometimes deploys him in the eighth inning. Kimbrel has secured more than three outs in games as many times this year as he did all of last year (five).

“Nothing is automatic,” Farrell says, “but Craig Kimbrel is darn close.”

Says Kelly, “What’s really amazing is he has the world’s slowest heartbeat. He never panics. Never.”

Kimbrel will spend the last half hour before a game napping in the clubhouse. When he wakes up, he stretches, gets a massage, applies red-hot ointment to his arm, walks to the bullpen in the fifth inning and chats amicably with his buddies. “I’m chill until it’s time for me to step on the bullpen mound,” he says. “Mentally, I can lock in as soon as I toe the rubber, and as I come through the gate I get to the next level.”

The June 6 game at Yankee Stadium typified how endgames in baseball have become stunning displays of power pitching with little contact and few rallies. Protecting a lead over the final three innings, Boston relievers Kelly, Matt Barnes and Kimbrel threw 64 pitches, 45 of which registered 95.3 mph or above. The Yankees hit only one of those 64 pitches out of the infield, their only hit against the relievers.

The odds of stitching hits together against Kimbrel are especially high. Only eight times in 437 games has Kimbrel allowed three hits in one inning, and never in his past 49 appearances.

He ended the night in a flourish. Facing New York rightfielder Aaron Judge, the league’s leading home run hitter and one of its hottest batters, Kimbrel threw a trio of fastballs at the top of the strike zone, each one harder than the last, starting with a 98.2-mph heater for a called strike and one at 99.4 for a swinging strike.

“The velocity is not the feeling I’m looking for,” he says. “It’s how the ball comes out of my hand. The radar gun doesn’t always tell the truth, especially with life on the fastball. That’s what spin rate is. That’s life.

“I don’t even know what the trick is to create it. I don’t know if it’s the wrist, the arm angle, how long you hold the ball or what. The only way I can describe it is, it feels right.”

The last pitch shot out of his hand perfectly, traveling 99.6 mph, spinning madly, and crossing the plate just about the same height off the ground as when it left his hand. Judge swung, but the pitch, like most from Kimbrel, was unhittable. When the ball popped into Vázquez’s mitt, it was the sound of Kimbrel again putting his stamp on baseball, as if affixing a raised seal to an official document. This, his fastball notarized, is the right pitcher with the right stuff at the right time. This is state of the art.

Craig Kimbrel is on another level

Newson May 15th, 2017No Comments

Looking at the closer’s dominant start to the season.

There are a range of opinions on how the rest of the season is going to go for the Red Sox, but few would disagree that it’s been extremely frustrating to this point. The offense has been inconsistent at best, and while the rotation has been mostly solid its work been undone by either the lineup or the bullpen far too often. There’s a lot of negativity around this team after they dropped their latest series, a three-game set at home with their two best pitchers throwing against a Rays team that is not too scary. While I think the negativity is a little much, I’d have to be an idiot to not understand where it’s coming from. So, with that in mind, let’s take this morning to focus on one of the positives from the first six weeks of the season: Craig Kimbrel.

The Red Sox closer has been absolutely incredible to start the season. We’re in a period of baseball in which seemingly every team has an elite reliever at their disposal, but after a relatively disappointing first season in Boston, Kimbrel may be throwing better than any other bullpen arm in the game. This isn’t going to be a long post, because the best way to understand how he’s been so good is just to go back and watch some of his outings from this season — including the immaculate inning from earlier in the week — but let’s check out some numbers to help back up how good he’s been.

Let’s start simple: Kimbrel has allowed two earned runs in his 16 23 innings in 2017, good for a 1.08 ERA. That’s good! He has a FIP of 0.36. That’s good! He has a DRA of 0.86. That’s good! That’s all really good!MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at Boston Red Sox Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Unsurprisingly, he’s been carried by an amazing ability to induce strikeouts. If you are a major-league hitter right now, A) thank you for reading I am flattered and B) you have a better chance of striking out against Kimbrel than doing literally anything else. The Red Sox closer has faced 59 batters this season and 33 of them have been set down by way of the K. That’s a rate of 56 percent, which is unsurprisingly the best among all pitchers with at least ten innings this year.

Looking a little deeper, things only start to get more impressive. According to Baseball Prospectus’ plate discipline numbers, half of the pitches batters have swung at off Kimbrel this season have have gone as whiffs. When they swing at pitches out of the zone, opponents have whiffed a whopping two-thirds of the time. Among the 328 players who have at least 200 pitches on the season, that is the fourth best whiff rate on pitches out of the zone.

What’s more impressive to me, though, is how often he is getting batters to whiff on pitches in the zone. In my opinion, there is no better stat to show how dominant a pitcher is. If you look at this leaderboard for any given season, it is consistently littered with the elite arms in the game. (Case-in-point: Chris Sale leads all starters in this category this season.) This year, opponents are only making contact on 58 percent of Kimbrel’s pitches in the zone. Not only is this the best rate in the league this season, it would be the best ever over a full season since BP started tracking this in 2008.

He’s doing this with the same fastball/curveball combination he’s always had, it’s just reached a different level. It does appear that he has a little more confidence in his curveball this year, as he’s throwing it at the highest rate of his career, per Brooks Baseball. It doesn’t matter what Kimbrel is throwing, though. Both pitches have been out of this world to start the season. Each offering boasts a whiff rate around 25 percent. That isn’t whiff per swing, either. A quarter of the time he throws either pitch, they swing and they miss. For context, Sale’s slider has a whiff rate of 17 percent, and we all know how unfair that pitch is.

The strikeouts are obviously incredible — and somewhat sustainable considering he’s had a full season with a 50 percent strikeout rate before — but what’s really brought him to the next level has been his control. Walks were Kimbrel’s undoing in 2017, and the thought was that if he could get his walk rate down to nine or ten percent he could get back to an elite level. He heard that and decided he’d do you one better. He’s walked just two batters this season for a 3.4 percent walk rate.

It’s not too hard to figure out how Kimbrel is doing this. He’s hitting the zone 55 percent of the time, which would easily be a career high. When he’s missing the zone, batters are chasing at a rate that would be the second highest of his career. It’s really that simple.

There’s a lot to be disappointed with regarding this Red Sox team right now, and most of it is completely fair. One part of the roster that has been more than acceptable is Kimbrel. He’s on another level right now, and while you don’t need the numbers to tell you that if you’ve been watching the games, it doesn’t hurt to gain a little more appreciation for what he’s doing.

Craig Kimbrel has been simply overpowering so far

Newson May 8th, 2017No Comments

MILWAUKEE — Dustin Pedroia watched Jonathan Papelbon close out games with power and Koji Uehara do it with finesse. Both helped the Red Sox win World Series.

Now, in Craig Kimbrel, Pedroia sees a closer capable of both. The righthander has a fastball that sits comfortably at 98-99 m.p.h. along with a curveball that he’s not afraid to use at any point in the count.

“He’s always been good, a guy who is an All-Star most years and one of the best at what he does,” Pedroia said. “But this year, it’s overpowering. He comes in and punches everybody out. His stuff is overwhelming.”

The statistics reflect that. Kimbrel leads the American League with 10 saves and has struck out 26 of the 50 batters he has faced. Opponents are 5 of 47 (.106) against Kimbrel with a .373 OPS.

In his last 11 appearances, Kimbrel has stuck out 21 of the 35 hitters he has faced and thrown 106 of 151 pitches for strikes (70 percent). He goes into Tuesday’s series opener against the Milwaukee Brewers having retired 12 batters in a row.

This is the best Kimbrel has pitched for the Red Sox since they obtained him from the San Diego Padres prior to the 2016 season.

“Without a doubt,” manager John Farrell said. “Last year was a strong year for him, but maybe not to the caliber he’s had previous. There were some things he was working through.

“[This season] has far surpassed anything that he did last year for us.”

It has been timely, too. The Red Sox significantly changed the look of their bullpen this season with the loss of Uehara, Junichi Tazawa, and Brad Ziegler to free agency. They also lost setup man Tyler Thornburg to a shoulder injury in spring training.

Kimbrel’s dominance has allowed Farrell to fit players into roles working back from the ninth inning. The bullpen, a jumble at the start of the season, has become one of the team’s strengths largely because of Kimbrel.

“He’s allowed us the ability to mix and match more readily,” Farrell said. “He’s allowed some younger guys to step up and assume a role that they might not be accustomed to because they know he’s there behind him as a shut-down closer.

“He gives an awful lot of confidence to that bullpen group, knowing you have that guy standing next to you.”

It started in spring training, Kimbrel working diligently on correcting the mechanical issues that affected him at times last season. His footwork occasionally threw his body out of alignment, which led to a career-worst 5.1 walks per nine innings and bouts of inconsistency.

“Being in the bullpen, one bad game can ruin your year statistically,” said Kimbrel. “I’ve never thought the numbers carry the weight of the entire year. There were a few of those games last year.”

Kimbrel allowed two or more runs six times and often struggled in non-save situations. Midseason knee surgery also kept him out three weeks.

“There were things I needed to work on,” Kimbrel said. “That’s been the case throughout my career, but especially last season. I wasn’t myself at times.

“Now, I feel like when I can command my fastball, it opens up throwing the breaking ball. I don’t have to be so pinpoint with it.”

Beyond mechanics and adjustments is a more simple explanation for Kimbrel’s success: familiarity.

He was traded from the Atlanta Braves to the San Diego Padres just before the start of the 2015 season, then sent to the Red Sox seven months later. This is the first time since 2014 that Kimbrel has had the same manager, pitching coach, and teammates for consecutive years.

He’s one of the guys, not the new guy.

“I think, for any player, comfort is a huge component in how guys perform,” said Farrell. “There’s more of a known commodity. Last year was the third team in three years for him. The fact that there’s stability in his professional life I would think lends something to this. He’s certainly settled in the way he’s thrown the baseball.”

Kimbrel also said this is the best he has felt physically in quite a while.

“For me, that’s all you can ask for,” he said. “Everything else follows.”

On Sunday against the Minnesota Twins, Kimbrel entered the game in the eighth inning with a one-run lead and a runner on third. He struck out Joe Mauer with a curveball and Max Kepler with a fastball.

The plan was for Kimbrel to stay in for the ninth inning and pick up a five-out save. But he was able to stay in the dugout when the Red Sox scored 10 runs in the top of the inning.

He laughed when asked if regretted not being around for the save.

“I’m glad we won the game,” Kimbrel said.

That’s one more statistic worth mentioning: The Sox are 14-0 when Kimbrel pitches.

“I’m glad I don’t have to face him,” Pedroia said. “He’s been ridiculous.”