Craig Kimbrel was supposed to solidify the back end of the Cubs bullpen when he joined the team midway through last season. Instead, the rust from sitting out while he awaited the expiration of a draft-pick penalty tied to his qualifying offer expired was evident as he served up a career-high nine home runs over a career-low 20.2 innings. It didn’t hurt that he pitched through nagging injuries that may have been exacerbated by his rapid ramp-up.
Things didn’t start out any better this season as Kimbrel’s first two appearances featured four walks and two home runs allowed with no strikeouts. Not only were hitters able to sit on his fastball, they weren’t even offering at his curveball. He didn’t need to tip his pitches because one never found the zone and the other found too much of it.
But when you’re paying a guy solid scratch and his numbers say he’s one of the best to ever do it, you give him another shot. And another. And another. So it’s understandable that Cubs fans were probably reaching for a drink of their own despite already feeling overserved when Kimbrel entered Friday’s game with his team trailing by a run. Though it was a spot that might have been unfamiliar for him in past years, Kimbrel has effectively lost the closer’s role for at least the time being.
In order to get it back, or even to regain the ability to pitch in meaningful situations, the righty needs to correct mechanical flaws we’ve pointed out here specifically and that the Cubs have mentioned publicly. Though the team would only go so far as to say the erstwhile closer was “out of whack,” he’s been throwing with a lower release point that may have come out of an attempt to regain velocity lost to Father Time.
He may also have been setting up differently when throwing the curve, a baffling development that would have been an obvious tell for hitters. Again, it didn’t matter much when his curveballs were wild and his fastballs mild. Friday’s outing represented a change for Kimbrel, with 98 flashing on the gun and the curve actually generating swings.
“He looked really good,” David Ross said after the game. “I’ve been trying to find a spot for him, and the feedback has been great every time I talk to the pitching guys, and his bullpens and the work he’s put in. I think you saw that tonight. The ball was exploding out of his hand really well. Some bad swings. Looked sharp.”
Not just empty platitudes, Ross was serious about Kimbrel looking better and generating whiffs, something he’d failed to do with any serious volume in his four previous appearances. In fact, he’d only registered five total swings and misses — all but one on the fastball — over the course of those outings. He generated six on Friday against the Brewers, doubling his season strikeout total in the process.
If that’s not enough of a sign for you, consider that Kimbrel had to throw the curveball 26 times against three different teams before getting anyone to swing at it. Not swing and miss, mind you, but just to swing at all. And it would take him until his 29th bender to get a whiff. He threw the knuckle-curve five times to four Brewers with the following results: foul, called strike, whiff, ball (walk), lineout. That’s three swings in one game after just two swings across four games.
“I don’t think he was far off,” Friday starter Alec Mills explained. “And think tonight he started putting a few more things together, fastball up in the zone and some good curveballs. It was good to see, for sure.”
Look, it’s way too early to say Kimbrel is back or that he’s fixed or whatever, but reestablishing his curve as a legitimate weapon would be huge. Whether it’s a matter of fixing how he sets his feet on the mound or correcting his release point, forcing hitters to respect the breaking ball and getting some more of those ugly swings makes the fastball that much more dangerous. And when that fastball is bearing down at 98 mph on the fringes of the zone, you’re talking about a guy who’s pitching like a closer.
Even if you’re not ready to toast the return of Kimbrel to a regular high-leverage role, you have to believe he’s earned another shot at establishing himself as a trustworthy bullpen arm. A setup man with the stuff he showed Friday? I’ll drink to that.