Roster Recap: Craig Kimbrel Strikes Back

It’s really easy to look at the 2017 Red Sox and see how good Chris Sale was, how underwhelming the offense was, and how mismanaged the injuries were. There’s a lot of highlights and lowlights there! But those lights can blind you from the other really good things that happened with the Red Sox, such as the return of one of the best closers in baseball: Craig Kimbrel.

2016 was not terribly kind to the flamethrowing reliever. He posted his highest walk rate since his rookie year, and he only had 20 innings pitched in 2010. There were more line drives given up than usual, and that combined with a dangerously low ground ball rate of 20 percent usually brings bad things, especially in a ballpark like Fenway. Kimbrel looked depressingly human, as far as elite closers go. But 2017 saw the return of some of that divinity that made him such an untouchable pitcher.

He also threw exactly 69 innings. What a stud.

What Went Right

Kimbrel’s first half was incredible, and that contains zero hyperbole. In fact, I might be underrating it. He held hitters to a .110/.158/.181 slash line. He had a 1.19 ERA with a 0.79 FIP. A few fortuitous bounces and Kimbrel’s monster first half could’ve been even better. He struck out over 50 percent – FIVE ZERO – of all the batters he faced, and in May, he had a strikeout rate of 61 percent. His walk rate was less than four percent. Craig Kimbrel was a human cheat code. To top it all off, here’s an immaculate inning.

Don’t get me wrong here, his entire season was fantastic, but that first half? That’s the stuff of legends. You’d be hard-pressed to find a stretch like that from any reliever that isn’t Rivera or Hoffman, and even if you include them, it would still be hard, given the sheer amount of strikeouts and the lack of walks.

2017 was one of Kimbrel’s best seasons, and he had some real all-timers in Atlanta. He improved in every part of the game that concerned us from 2016: the groundball rate surged by a full eight percentage points to 37 percent, the line drives went down, and just for good measure, Kimbrel added in the highest whiff rate in his career. He even had a negative FIP (-0.24) in 22.2 high-leverage innings, and he gave up four homers in that same sample! That’s just absurd.

He also got the win in the All-Star Game for striking out Michael Conforto in the ninth inning, and yeah, wins are garbage, but that’s pretty neat thing he can stick on his resumé.

What Went Wrong

It’s not wrong to say his second half was worse than the first half, but it was, since being as incredibly good as he was ends up being very hard to sustain. It wasn’t a horrible collapse or anything of the sort, but Kimbrel only held batters to a .174/.252/.315 slash line and struck out just 48 percent of them. What a bum, huh?

Of the postseason runs he’s been on, this is probably one he’d like to forget. In Game 4, Kimbrel came in to relieve Sale in the 8th inning, and promptly allowed a go-ahead RBI single to Josh Reddick, and then an RBI double to Carlos Beltran soon after. It was the Red Sox’s best reliever in a crucial spot, and Kimbrel just didn’t have it.

There’s really nothing else I can write here. Kimbrel was overall excellent, and you should all appreciate him.

What To Expect

How amazing would it be if we got any more of the same? While first-half Kimbrel is just wishful thinking, it’s not crazy to think that his second half is something to expect. That’s a 1.72 ERA/2.17 FIP, and he’s shown that he’s more than capable of putting up those numbers. It’s also fair to expect age to start chipping away at him, since he’ll turn 30 next season, and if you think he’ll do worse than those numbers, that’s also okay. Relievers are volatile, and even one as stellar as Kimbrel isn’t immune to aging. So hope for the best, expect another great year, and prepare for…well, more knuckle-curving goodness.

Photo by Bob DeChiara – USA TODAY Sports

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2 comments on “Roster Recap: Craig Kimbrel Strikes Back”

Horace Fury

Mr. Cowett, I’m assuming that 2018 is Kimbrel’s last year in Boston, because I can’t see the FO being willing to pay $13MM+ over multiple years for a FA reliever, even Kimbrel. Do you agree with that, or do you see a way that he stays beyond 2018?

Brett Cowett

I agree with you! Not just for the reason you stated, but also because they have a pretty good bullpen outside of Kimbrel, and Carson Smith could be the guy after he’s gone.

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