Craig Kimbrel is a key player for the Cubs this year. I think that if the success of the team hinges the most on a single certain player, that guy is Kimbrel. How he performs this year can easily decide the division, especially in a 60 game sprint. A couple of blown saves can cause major rifts in the bullpen, where stability will go a long way. After blowing many saves last year and missing all of September, the Cubs bullpen imploded, and basically ruined the season.
When Kimbrel is on, he's unhittable. Let's consult the almighty Pitching Ninja for details:
As I talked about at length back in December, Craig Kimbrel's success greatly depends on his pitch velocity. When he's pitching well, his fastball is 98-99 mph, and his curve is 86-88 mph. When he's struggled in recent times, that fastball velocity sat closer to 96. This happened at times in Boston 2018, and happened much of last year with the Cubs.
Back in March, just a week before the shutdown, I peeked at Kimbrel's velocity. His fastball was touching 95-96 at that time. Granted, it usually takes him about a month in season to ramp up to upper 90s. But it would usually go from a 97.1 mph to a low 99 range. He'd rarely throw in the 95-96 range. It was a few weeks before what was to be opening day, but it was low. Since then, we've had a shutdown.
Now that the Cubs are in summer camp, I'm paying close attention to Kimbrel again. Willson Contreras lit him up for a home run in an early appearance. Then on 7/14, I got to watch his intrasquad outing. He struck out two and looked decent. But there was no televised radar gun. I found out afterwords that Kimbrel is still slower than usual. Good for him for striking out two, but most MLB hitters won't whiff like Descalso.
I then got to watch his outing in an exhibition vs the White Sox on 7/20. The positive was that he didn't give up a run. He gave up a leadoff walk (ugh), but that runner was thrown out trying to steal. Good thing, because he later gave up a sharp single. He threw two meatballs down the middle of the plate, but was unscathed. His location wasn't great, as Phegley was consistently having to move his glove 3-6 inches per pitch. Some of that might be pitch movement, but it didn't look great.
The issue again was velocity. Kimbrel maxed at 96 mph, with just a handful of pitches. He threw several fastballs in a shockingly low 93-94 mph range. Even Len and J.D. were talking about his reduced velocity, and how he's non-elite anymore. They mentioned his changeup development, but I'm not sure I saw Kimbrel throw a single one
The big issue is that his velocity is still down. Not that I was expecting him to ramp up during the instability of the shutdown and be at midseason form. But again, we are looking at lower velocities that were prevalent in his 4 HR per 9 struggles.
I have concerns.