At the outset, let me concede that guys who have “done it before” can do it again, and relievers are notoriously volatile. It is, of course, possible that Craig Kimbrel, with the help of some additional video, discussions, confidence, whatever, could flip a switch and be just fine the next time out. I’m not totally ruling that out, and we’ll all follow along on what the Cubs decide to do with his role going forward.
HOWEVER, I’m also going to tell you right now that I don’t think there’s any choice at this moment that would be too hasty.
A change in role for Kimbrel right now would not be some meatball overreaction to one terrible outing to open a season. Instead, should the Cubs opt to make a change – and, candidly, I think it should at least be discussed – it would be within the context of a guy who (1) had troubling indicators in his final season with the Red Sox, (2) was largely ignored by the market that offseason, (3) was injured and ineffective all of last year, (4) has suffered clear diminished velocity and command across the board, and (5) is not bothering hitters in the least.
Let me start there at that last one. Last night, Kimbrel’s wildness was not my biggest concern. The fact that he was still sometimes hitting only 95 mph with his fastball after his peak years at 98-99 mph was not my biggest concern. Instead, my biggest concern was that out of the 15 knuckle curves he threw, the Reds did not even remotely start to offer at any of them. Kimbrel’s formerly plus-plus breaking pitch did not elicit a single swing. Outside of one check swing, there were no reactions at all. They just watched the pitch go, comfortably, like they were watching a TV show.
Having all the data in the world is great, but sometimes you can just go old school: hitters will tell you what they’re seeing. And when every single Reds hitter was completely comfortable with Kimbrel’s curveball as soon as it left his hand, that tells you something is not right. He even located several of them right where you’d theoretically want them (down and away on a two-strike count to a righty), but the Reds didn’t so much as blink.
Speaking of the data, for what it’s worth from one appearance: Kimbrel’s spin rate on the curve was down 50-75 RPMs from recent years, velocity on the curve was down 2-3 mph from recent years, and got nearly an inch less vertical drop than in recent years. So, yeah, even without the hitter test, the data was ugly, too.
That’s all granular on just the curveball. That’s not even widening the scope to look at a wild closer who comes into a three-run game and goes walk, groundout, walk, walk, HBP, walk, and gets pulled. And it’s also not widening the scope to look at a guy who gave up more homers last year in a shortened season than he’d given up in any other full season because his fastball was getting hammered.
Something is just not right, and the Cubs absolutely cannot afford to blow games needlessly this year. No conversation should be off limits today.
I am keenly aware of the “confidence” factor, even as I also think some of that just have to go out the window this year. If Kimbrel is bumped from the closer job now, he may not ever get it back (and I don’t just mean the job when I say “it”).
“He hadn’t had work in six days,” David Ross said of Kimbrel after the game, per The Athletic. “Part of that is he’s got to knock off some rust and continue to trust his stuff. I thought the fastball was electric tonight, we just weren’t in the zone enough. I think he didn’t trust his fastball enough tonight. I think he can trust that a little more, it was electric. Get him back to being who he is, I want him to trust himself. A big thing about baseball is confidence. When you get that confidence, get a couple good outings under your belt, things seem to roll a little bit better. You trust yourself a little more.”
I tend to think David Ross was just saying what needed to be said after a game, but unless the Cubs internally know exactly what needs to be done to fix Kimbrel – immediately – his name and his previous performance cannot be the reason he gets the next save opportunity. The fact that his release point was way off last night maybe leaves you some tiny room for hope on a mere mechanical issue that can be fixed after some video study?
We’ll see what happens when the next save situation pops up, or – if before that – maybe Kimbrel gets some work in another situation.
All I’m saying is that we had justifiable concerns on Kimbrel, specifically, long before last night’s appearance, and the list of concerns only got longer. Maybe you allow yourself some grace for most of the relievers to see what you’ve got. But with Kimbrel, I feel like we have gotten a pretty strong picture already, going back to last year. And it’s scary when any blown game this season counts for about 2.7 games’ worth.