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Is Craig Kimbrel Tipping?

In Craig Kimbrel's appearances thus far, hitters have been lining him up well. They've been laying off balls (stat) and swinging at strikes (stat). Kimbrel isn't really fooling anyone with pitch selection. The question is beginning to be murmured "Is Kimbrel tipping his pitches?"

Tipping pitches can be a problem for pitchers. As we kind of saw in the 2017 world series, If the Astros know what Yu Darvish is throwing, it sets them up to knock him out of the game early. Knowing what kind of pitch was coming was critical to their "success" that season. A certain type of pitch will often be hittable or something to be laid off right out of the pitcher's hand. Often times, hitters will try to read pitchers based off of grip and spin. A new chess match is unfolding, where pitchers have to try harder than ever to disguise their pitches by not allowing hitters to read what pitch is coming based off grip, delivery and overall body language.

As Kimbrel's been hit hard, we have to wonder if hitters are figuring him out. Right off the bat, Craig Kimbrel throws two pitches: a fastball and a curve. Historically, he throws the fastball about 70% of the time, and a curve the remaining 30%. With these two option, a hitter already has a 50/50 shot at correctly guessing the correct pitch before he even goes into his windup. Kimbrel does also have tendencies to throw a certain pitch depending on the count. Baseball savant has a fantastic tool that allows you to see visual probabilities of which pitch is coming depending on count.

So when he's behind, you can expect to see fastballs coming. If he's on two strikes, There's a high likelyhood you'll see the curve. Given Kimbrel's wildness, a hitter can just wait to see if he's going to throw a first pitch strike, then play the percentages from there on in the at bat.

First pitch strike percentage for Kimbrel in 2020 is at 50% currently. For his career, it was closer to 60%. If you get a ball first pitch, you can sit and wait on fastballs.

So far we've just been predicting. Let's look at Kimbrel's motions. With some help of Matt's, we've copied pitching ninja and overlaid two pitches to the same hitter. One fastball, and one curve.

After watching that 50 times. I'm not sure I see a difference. Feel free to correct me in the comments. base off his in motion, there isn't much to go on. But if you go back, this question has come up previously.

Now as it turns out, Craig Kimbrel did have an issue with tipping pitches, and not that long ago either. Before he came to the Cubs, he struggled late 2018 with the Red Sox.

There's a fantastic Athletic article here. (seriously, get a subscription to the Athletic if you don't have one. Basically, the tell is before Kibrel goes into his windup. He will hold the ball in his glove a certain way. FOr his fastball, his hand is tucked more inside his glove. For the curve, the split fingers cause his hand to stick out from the glove more. Here's a gif Ben Harris wrote about nearly two years ago.

On the left is the fastball, and on the right is the curve. Pretty obvious, right?

The adjustment Kimbrel made back then was to adjust his motion. Instead of starting his windup with his hands up at face level, he moved them to about belt high. This helped disguise the tell, and enabled him to have a good world series. With all of this in mind. Let's look at his windup since coming to the Cubs.

First up, Kimbrel's most recent outing on 8/4/20:

Notice the wider glove grip, and the curve.

Up next we have a fastball from his first outing against the Reds.

I went through video of all his 2020 appearances, and his windup is the same in all. Hands up by the head, instead of by the belt. Furthermore, I tried guessing each pitch based off pre-pitch grip, and was able to guess correctly roughly 90% of the time. Granted, I was looking at the count too and knowing the likelyhood of which pitch might come, but MLB hitters can obviously do the same.

Just for curiosity's sake, I went back to 2019 video. In the 50 individual pitches I spot checked from throughout the entire season, his windup was of the higher hand by the head variety. Going back even further with video from 2018 and earlier, I learned that his windup was the same high hands. It's not like when he was good, he had a different delivery. Perhaps it took a few years for teams to figure out the tell. Perhaps Kimbrel's struggles are a combination of tell, lower velocity, predictability, and a growing lack of command.

Now that you know of all of this, pay close attention to Kimbrel's next outing, and see if you can guess which pitch is coming based off of:

  • Different grips depending on pitch: wide for curve, narrow for fastball

  • Tendency to throw fastballs when behind in the count

  • Tendency to throw curves when ahead in the count


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