Tipping Point: Craig Kimbrel’s Lack of Execution Means Hitters Don’t Need to Know What’s Coming

Craig Kimbrel’s decreased velocity has been an issue since he joined the Cubs, so it seemed like a good sign when he came out throwing 97 mph in the 9th inning of Friday’s game. It wasn’t a save situation because the Cubs had tacked on a little insurance in the top of the inning, but David Ross was sending his closer out there to knock off the rust from the layoff. Maybe the lower-leverage outing would give Kimbrel a chance to take the dog off the leash and let it eat.

It only took three pitches to dispel that notion, as Josh Bell walloped Kimbrel’s third straight — both in a row and on a line — 97 mph four-seamer out to right for a homer. The very next pitch was thrown with nearly the same velocity and yielded the same result, a homer by Colin “Get A Brain” Moran to left-center. Kimbrel needed just eight more pitches to retire the next three batters in order, but the Pirates were still hitting everything on the screws.

In case you’re having trouble deciphering the tweets above, all the contact Kimbrel allowed left the bat with a minimum 101.8 velocity. That’s the first time since Statcast starting recording exit velo in 2015 that Kimbrel has allowed five batted balls at 100+ mph, and I’m willing to bet that it’s the first time he’s ever done that, period.

People had already speculated after his implosion in Cincinnati, an outing in which Kimbrel recorded just one out while walking four batters and hitting another, that he was tipping his pitches. More than just social media conspiracy theories, members of the actual media had their own suspicions and even asked Ross about it in Cincy.

“That’s a tricky road to go down,” Ross told Russell Dorsey and other reporters. “I appreciate you asking that. When you go down the tipping road…It’s easier to try to figure out if it’s a tipping issue when…you feel like you’ve game-planned the right way and you’re executing the pitch and it gets [hit] in the gap or hit for a homer.

“Now you’re worried about somebody picking up your signs, ‘Am I tipping my pitches?’ But it’s hard to judge that stuff off of non-executed pitches.”

With all due respect to those looking for clues to Kimbrel’s tells while the Pirates were busy mollywopping the closer Friday night, it’s really important to look at what Ross said there at the end. While I’m as much a fan of trying to spot clues as the next click-hungry blogger, this isn’t a situation in which the opposition really needs help to know what’s coming.

Kimbrel only throws two pitches, four-seam and curve, and neither of them has nearly the same zip as they once did. The first issue is velocity, which you can see from the first chart below has tailed off appreciably over the last two seasons. With all due respect to Kyle Hendricks and Alec Mills, both of whom live below 90, a guy like Kimbrel can’t afford to lose multiple ticks.

Troubling though the velocity dip might be, it’s not the worst of Kimbrel’s faults at this point. As you can clearly see from this next chart, both his fastball and curve have significantly less vertical movement than in the past. Both are trending toward that middle line of zero movement, meaning they’re much “flatter” than they used to be. That could be a matter of his lower release point, something we’ve been monitoring here at CI for a little while.

The fastball has lost about 1.3 inches from Kimbrel’s previous career average, while the curve is missing nearly 2 inches of break. Those are monstrous changes when you’re talking about the difference between a whiff and a barrel.

What I’m driving at is that I don’t really think Kimbrel is tipping his pitches, nor would it matter if he was. When you only have two offerings, both of which are slower and flatter than ever before before, it’s a lot easier for hitters to guess correctly. More often than not, that means sitting dead red and hitting paydirt on a center-cut meatball.

A pitcher throwing 97 is nothing these days, so Kimbrel’s not blowing anyone away any longer. Hell, Yu Darvish — who’s battled his own tipping issues — was hitting 98 as the starter. And when it comes to hitters knowing what’s coming, how about Mariano Rivera and his famous cutter? The best pitchers can still beat hitters even when there’s no guesswork involved.

Perhaps the bigger issue here is that, like the recently demoted Dillon Maples, Kimbrel doesn’t appear to know where his pitches are going. It’s unfair to say he’s scared to throw, but it’s become quite clear that he’s no longer scary when he throws. And if that’s the case with your closer, you need a new closer.

Friday may have been the tipping point for the Cubs and Kimbrel, even if it’s a small one. They certainly don’t want to cut ties with him completely, but they can’t keep running him out there in high-leverage situations. Perhaps this most recent performance will also tip the balance for the pitcher himself, pushing him to finally adopt the changeup he’s been tinkering with since at least 2015.

As difficult as it might be to add a new pitch to the mix at this juncture of his career, what’s he got to lose? And it’s not like we’re talking about tinkering with an elite repertoire any longer. Barring a sudden reversal in the obvious trends, he’s not suddenly going to revive the fastball and curve. Supplementing them with the changeup, even if it’s used only sparingly, would keep hitters from sitting on the heat and could even make the four-seam play up a little bit.

Sometimes you’ve got to hit rock bottom to accept the need for change, so let’s hope Friday’s outing represented that for Kimbrel. Because if it didn’t and he can still get lower, God help us all.

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