Here’s What’s Wrong With Craig Kimbrel: He’s Not Just Getting Old

Last Summer, the Cubs signed Craig Kimbrel to a 3-year, $43 million guaranteed contract to become their new closer. Kimbrel, who had been lights out in his career, has been anything but that since joining the Northsiders. Not that many of you need proof of that, but below is a look at some of Kimbrel’s stats.

The years highlighted in yellow denote Kimbrel’s time on the Cubs

There’s no way to make 2019 and 2020 look pretty. You can say he didn’t have a full season in 2019 and that 2020 just started and the timing was weird again with COVID, but the data we do have for those years doesn’t look good. Four of the eight balls put in play this year have been barrels and his expected ERA of 66.81 is even worse than his actual ERA of 32.40; meaning he should’ve allowed even more runs than he has according to the quality of contact he’s allowed.

Why have hitters been able to barrel-up Kimbrel now? That question is pretty easy to answer; he’s throwing slower and his pitches are moving less.

Kimbrel only throws two pitches: a four-seam fastball and a curveball. As you can see from the graphs above, his velocity has been at the lowest point for both of his pitches in his career. That decline is not a promising look. Below we see focus in on pitch movement by looking at Kimbrel’s curveball spin-rate.

Kimbrel’s spin-rate has also taken a steep dive since becoming a Cub. These definitely explain why hitters have had lots of success against him recently. Kimbrel is getting older, but he’s only 32, which really isn’t that old for a closer and makes be think this isn’t just him getting older.

The other variable that we can’t quantify here is that he hasn’t pitched consistently since 2018. He was an unsigned free agent until midway through 2019, then he had to jump right into the season in June after a short time in Iowa. Then in 2020 we have the pandemic, so consistent reps is not something Kimbrel has had.

Those could be reasons for this drop in spin-rate and velocity. Another I was curious to look at was from where his release point is at. So I took a look at Craig Kimbrel’s release points over the past few seasons.

As a visual, picture the release point being in this gray box in the image below.

Now picture this graph below to be a blown up version of that gray box.

Each point on the graph represents the average release point for Craig Kimbrel during each of the last four seasons. You can see his horizontal release point has gotten farther away from his body in each of the last few seasons (correlating similar to his velocity and spin-rates decreases). Since his arm is further out than usual, this pushes his arm further off it’s most efficient path and causes him to lose velocity.

You can also see his vertical release point is lower in 2020, but that may be him trying to mess with things and the sample size is not huge on that, but the horizontal change in release point is what interests me more since it’s moved consistently over the last few years with enough pitch data to back it up.

David Ross has been quoted saying that he believes Kimbrel’s struggles are mechanical. This is my best guess on what mechanics need to change for Kimbrel. Maybe there’s a mental aspect of the weird timing and no consistent reps, but if they can figure out how to get Kimbrel to bring that release back closer to his body, we could get a Kimbrel we hoped for back when the Cubs signed him. David Ross said he won’t turn his back on him and I’m not either.

Published by Will McClaughry

Sports fan, data enthusiast and former division 3 college basketball player

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