Updated: Dec 11, 2019
Today it is time to take a long and hard look at the Cubs closer situation. Craig Kimbrel was signed by the Cubs in June 2019. He signed for 3 years and 43 million, with a vesting option for 2022 (16 million for 110 games finished in 2020/2021. His signing was a bit of a surprise, for someone with a pedigree as being one of the best relief pitchers ever, he did not sign a contract throughout the winter.
Now part of that might have been the fact that he'd cost a lot of money, and both NYY and LAD didn't need closers. But his former team Boston did. They opted for the closer by committee approach, shocking for a team that had just won the world series. How little confidence did they have in Kimbrel to just not bring him back?
Unfortunately, Craig Kimbrel's 2019 was an unmitigated disaster. After early-season bullpen problems, the Cubs needed a stopper. Kimbrel was arguably worse than some of the terrible options he was replacing. His career ERA before the Cubs was 1.91. After an insane 6.53 ERA 2019, it's now up to 2.08. How did one of the best relief pitchers of this present era fall so far so fast? And can he right the ship going forward?
Let us start by examining Craig Kimbrel's career track.
Looking at his career numbers, he was basically the best pitcher ever for the Braves, putting up an ERA below 1.50. His Padres year was great, but not as insanely good as his time with ATL. Then he went to Boston for 3 years, having a mediocre by his standards first year, then another great season like he did in ATL. 2018 was a worse year than in 2016. Then the true outlier is 2019 with the Cubs. There wasn't blatant regression over the years. His numbers were remarkably consistent and great. Take a moment to examine some of the numbers and note:
-Kimbrel really hasn't been the same since leaving ATL. Still really great, but not the legend we once knew.
-Kimbrel's 3 worst seasons have been in the last 4 years. Not in a row showing clear regression though.
-Outside of the 2019 disaster, a lot of his performance indicators have been relatively consistent: strikeout rate, walk rate and hits allowed rate. There's a little back and forth, but overall all are in the same range.
-There have been declines in strikeouts and increases in walks the last 2 years.
-His home run rate was below .5 per 9 in ATL. Since then it's nearly doubled to 1 per 9. Then there's the 3.9 per 9 disaster of 2019.
-That 3.9/9 figure was 3rd worst in the league among pitchers with 20 IP or more in 2019. Lots of scrubs on that list, and that is a lot of pitchers who threw more than 20 innings.
Judging the above numbers, one wouldn't expect the 2019 disaster that it was. It's really easy to initially wipe it away as an abnormality. Kimbrel didn't start until June, missed spring training, was on the injured list twice (after 1 other injury in the entirety of his career). So maybe between the lack of prep and the fact that he was hurt, should indicate that he'll be fine once healthy. As brutal as it was watching him in 2019, that's what most could realistically hope for going forward. I was originally going to write about how Kimbrel should bounce back in 2020. Then as I began examining the numbers, I uncovered a lot more cause for concern. Buckle up, because it's going to be a bumpy ride.
Craig Kimbrel is 31 at the moment and will turn 32 on May 28, 2020. This quickly becomes a massive concern when examining historical trends. Pitchers, especially relief pitchers have a shorter shelf life. Mostly because as they age, they lose velocity. Hitters catch up with the pitches and start hitting them harder. RPs are notorious for hitting a proverbial wall, and the performance just stops. It's like once they run out of gas, there is no path back to success like their once was. Sometimes it's injury-related, sometimes it's age. Allow me to examine some more famous cases in the last couple of years.
Greg Holland: Great closer for the KC Royals for many years. Gets hurt at age 30 and misses a full 2016 season. Comes back in 2017 at age 31 for a good but substandard year. Then at age 32 has a messy 2018, after not signing until late in the game. Then more of the same in 2019. In his time before 2016 his stats read like this: 2.42 ERA / 1.123 WHIP / 12.1 K per 9 / 3.5 BB per 9.
In the last 3 years, he's put up ERAs of 3.61, 4.66 and 4.54. WHIPs of 1.151, 1.619, and 1.374. a K rate of 10 per 9. Walk rate of 5.5 per 9. Essentially he's getting hit harder, walking more, and it's wreaking havoc on his overall performance.
Wade Davis: Great for the Royals for years. Then at age 31 in 2017, has an ERA of 2.30 which is double the 3 years prior for KC. In 2018 (age 32) it doubles again to 4.30 for Colorado. Then doubles again to 8.65 in 2019 (age 33). What a sharp drop off. The cause? a home run rate that was 3 longballs allowed in his 3 great years for the Royals. Then annual totals of 6, 8, and 7. His Ks per 9 have fluctuated previously but dropped 3 years in a row. Walk rates and hits allowed have been fluctuating before spiking in 2019. Essentially he looks like someone who's hit the wall the past 2 years, and the performance drop off has been steep.
Andrew Miller: longtime middle relief ace. Goes to the bullpen in Boston and becomes a stud, putting up ERAs of 2.02 in 2014 (age 29), 2.04 in '15, 1.45 in '16, and 1.44 in '17. Then in 2018 at age 33, puts up a 4.24 ERA, followed up with a 4.45 in 2019. The source? A ballooning walk rate, going from a tiny 2 per 9 to 4.3 the last 2 years. Hits allowed jumps up, going from 4.5 per 9 to 8.2 and 7.2 the last 2 years. Then his HR allowed rate spikes from a career average of .9 to 1.8 in 2019. He's losing control, getting hit harder and more frequently.
Aroldis Chapman: is a similar pitcher to Kimbrel, relying on the speed of his fastball. He'll be 32 in 2020. he hasn't quite hit the wall yet, but did go from a 2.14 ERA pitcher in Cincinnati to ERAs of 3.22, 2.45, and 2.21 the last 3 years. His WHIP has remained consistent, so he's not allowing more baserunners, but his strikeout rate is a concern. His career average stands at 14.8 per 9 innings, but 2 out of the last 3 years has been below that. The jury is out, but I wanted to mention his name as Chapman and Kimbrel may go into the hall of fame together as the best closers of this era.
Pedro Strop: Middle relief ace of the Cubs after figuring it out once traded from Baltimore. He put up consistent ERAs of 2.21, 2.91, 2.85, 2.83, and 2.26 from ages 29-33. Then bombs out last year at age 34 with a 4.97 ERA. his HR allowed rate doubles, hits and walks increase slightly as his WHIP goes from 1.000 in his prime to 1.272 last year.
Kenley Jansen: Stud closer for the Dodgers. Ages 22-29, he's a beast. His career ERA after 2017 is 2.08, a tiny .872 WHIP and with 14 strikeouts and .7 HR allowed per 9, respectively. Age 30: 3.01 ERA, .991 WHIP, and 1.6 HR /10.3 K per 9. Age 31 in 2019: 3.71 ERA 1.063 WHIP, 1.3 HR per 9 11.4 K per 9. Once again, a player that starts aging, gives up a few more baserunners, more home runs, and goes from being legendary to much more mediocre. He hasn't quite hit the wall like some of the other players, but as he goes into age 32, the Dodgers might have a big problem sooner than they anticipated.
I'll spare you deeper dives of more RPs, but some other names of note:
Blake Treinen: career 2.97 ERA, his age 31 last year and the ERA spikes to 4.91 as hits, walks and home runs allowed all spike.
Brad Boxberger: career 3.59 ERA. Age 30 it jumps to 4.39 then 5.40 last year, as strikeouts drop while WHIP increases.
Mark Melancon: longtime stud closer through age 31 with an ERA under 2. Age 32 The ERA jumps to 4.50. He rebounds the last 2 years for ERAs of 3.23 and 3.61, but is no longer what he once was. He's the biggest exception on my list.
Francisco Rodriguez: The longtime Angels stud. He's a little uneven ages 29-32. At age 33 in 2015, he has a nice rebound year of a 2.21 ERA. 2 years later it's 7.82 and he's out of baseball by 2018. He was a little bit older, but clearly hit the wall and was done quickly.
AJ Ramos: age 29 2.81 ERA. then 3.99 and 6.41 respectively. Once again, thanks to increased walks and hits allowed.
The point I took forever to get to, RPs are fickle. Once they hit the wall, it's very unlikely that they recover, particularly once they are past age 30. In the 10 names I examined of pitchers who have actually hit the wall, only 1 arguably recovered (Melancon). Why is this?
RPs often belong in the bullpen because they lack either the consistency or stamina to throw more innings. Often times, control can become an issue and walks can balloon at some point in the 5-7 innings that they need to get through. Once that pitch deteriorates in velocity, the RP has no answers to get hitters out. Sometimes it's stamina, as a pitcher runs out of gas after 3 innings and as they lose velocity, they get it.
Other times, a good RP has only 1 good pitch. It can be used effectively in the 3-5 batters they might face in an outing. You can forget about trying it several times through the order, as major league hitters can time anything, given enough looks.
Now is a good time to reiterate: Craig Kimbrel is coming off his age 31 season, which was plagued by injuries. He's also a 2 pitch pitcher, which does not bode well going forward. It sure looks like he hit the wall in 2019 if so, chances of recovery are low.
Craig Kimbrel thrives on strikeouts From 2009-2018 (Kimbrel's career prior to the Cubs), he was second on the list of strikeouts per 9 innings among RP. The list goes Dellin Bettances: 15.4, Kimbrel 14.89, Chapman 14.2. He had a better strikeout rate than the guy famous for throwing 104 MPH pitches. View the full list here. Also note that in 2019, his Ks per 9 was 13.06, down nearly 2 from career average. Over the last 3 years it's gone from 16.43, 13.86, to 13.06. He is a strikeout pitcher, and we just uncovered an alarming trend. With only two pitches, can he become a contact manager as his velocity dips with age?
Why are his strikeouts declining? Let's look at his pitch mix. Kimbrel is a 2 pitch pitcher, a four seam fastball that sits around 98 MPH, and a knuckle curve around 87. He also has a changeup, which gets thrown apparently once every couple of seasons. It's essentially a non factor. He throws his fastball between 70-75% of the time throughout his career. Curve use is around 25-30% of the time. In a 4.25 pitch at bat (Kimbrel's career average), expect to see 3 fastballs and one curve.
I've generated 3 charts showing how effective those individual pitches are from the last 3 years, as he's declined.
Takeaways from the above:
-Curve usage has gone up the 3 years: 31.4%, 36%, and 33% respectively.
-Success on the curve has remained consistent throughout the 3 years. It was least successful in 2017, but also suffered from a high BABIP, so it was likely an unlucky outlier.
-Strikeout% on the fastball last 3 years: 51.8%, 38.7%, 23.9%: has plummeted.
-Strikeout % on the curve last 3 years: 55%, 50%, 53%: has remained consistent
-BAA, SLG and ISO on his fastball has also increased 3 years running.
Conclusion: His fastball is clearly losing effectiveness. This is a big problem when you throw said pitch 70% of the time, and it's one out of two pitches in the arsenal.
Next, let's look at pitch velocity. If he's getting older, he could be losing some MPH on the heat.
Right here we have our outlier. Both his fastball and curve were a bit slower. The fastball has dropped over 2 MPH in the last 2 years, and the curve lost 1 MPH just in the last year. 2 MPH may not seem like a lot, but when he's a 2 pitch pitcher, it makes fooling the hitter a lot more difficult.
Here's a chart I put together of his pitch velocity based on month (as some pitchers take time to ramp up throughout the season). it is for the last 3 years.
Seems like the trend is that he ramps up velocity from March to May. Then it usually remains pretty consistent throughout the year. Looks like there is a peak in August, and a slight drop come September/October. This graph shows trends but isn't super easy to read for the fine detail. Here's a chart.
Looking closely, please notice that Kimbrel's velocity was at its worst in September 2019. Significantly so, and more for the fastball than the curve. He ramped up like normal after a month or so, but then fell flat unlike any other time in his career. Furthermore, despite pitching for months, his fastball never got to the same level it's always been. That's extremely concerning. Let's see the impact on performance
Here is Craig Kimbrel's game log for 2019. Keep in mind he missed action for 2 separate IL visits, and missed time from 8/3-8/18, and then again from 9/1-9/19.
His fluctuating ERA isn't always the best indicator of performance, as even one earned run spikes it. Rather allow me to place your attention at these points:
-Clean outings: 7/12, 7/17, 7/23, 8/20, 8/21, and 8/29. 6 times did he allow no baserunners in 23 appearances.
-He allowed runs in 7 out of 23 outings, almost 1/3rd of the time. 2 came early, and 3 came late. take out the 3 appearances at the beginning and end of the season, and it's 4 earned runs total in 17 appearances, or roughly 1 out of every 4. Appearances with ER: 7/1 7/3 7/27 8/18 9/1 9/19 9/21
-Take out his 3 appearances in September that led into and out of his second IL stint, and, and his ERA is 4.42. Still terrible, but a lot better.
If you are wondering what his pitch velocity was for each appearance: here's the chart from Brooks. For those last 3 appearances in September, his fastball velocity was 95.53, 95.71, and 96.28. Something was wrong. But let's now look at pitch velocity for all appearances where he gave up runs:
7/1: 95.62 / 85.16
7/3 : 95.06/84.88
8/18: data missing
9/19 : 95.71/85.54
Going through the list, there were other noticeable dips in velocity on 7/16 ( 95.76 MPH, 1 H,1 BB 0 ER) and 7/23 (94.74 MPH, clean inning). So consistently, when the velocity took a dive for whatever reason, poor performance ensued.
Now much earlier, I mentioned his age and declined velocity. Let's look at historically how pitcher's velocities decline as they age.
Here's one chart generated by topvelocity.net. From age 28 on, it appears that pitchers lose an average of .75 MPH per year. Apply that to Kimbrel's recent data, and he is throwing 92 MPH by the of his contract. Not good. Let's look at another graph, one that shows more stats.
This graph was taken from an article talking about Tim Lincecum's decline. It shows the same .75 MPH average drop per year. It also shows K rate dropping at nearly the same pace as velocity. Meanwhile all offensive stats spike. This trend traditionally starts at age 28 and becomes extreme by the early 30s. This bodes poorly for Kimbrel.
While Kimbrel had an obvious decline in 2019, there were a few warning signs. I suspect this contributed to the lack of offers he received on the free-agent market. When Boston didn't want him back and opted to go with a closer by committee, that spoke volumes as to a lack of confidence/value to Kimbrel. What did they know that other teams might not? Health issues perhaps? I'm not a member of the Cardinals front office, so I can't hack their files. But I did a deep dig into Kimbrel's statistics from the last few years. Here is a bunch of trending statistics to consider:
-Kimbrel's K% for the last three years: 49.6% 38.9% 31.3%. His career mark is 40%, and MLB average 20.64%. He's been reliant on strikeouts, and those have been in decline for a while now.
-Kimbrel's BB% for the last 3 years: 5.5% 12.6 12.5%. Career is 10.3%. Three out of the last 5 years above 12%. Not a straight decline, but below his original standard. If he's wild, players aren't swinging and missing as much.
-Kimbrel's Barrel % for the last 3 years: 11.8%, 9.3%, 21.2%. After being consistent throughout his career, it spiked in 2019. It could be that he was more wild and that his velocity was down, but that's concerning. 20% of batters hitting the ball hard bodes poorly for performance.
-Kimbrel's Looking Strike percentage for the last 3 years: 28.7% 25.9% 22.4%, career 28%, MLB average 27%
So essentially 6% less looking strikes over 3 years. It seems like a smaller number, but he went from slightly above average to far below. he's not working the strike zone like he once was.
-Swinging strike percentage for the last 3 years: 30.4%, 29.7%, 25.3%. 27.3% for his career and the MLB average is 16.8%. Players are not swinging and missing like they once were. We are looking at 5% less swinging strikes over the last 3 years. A seemingly small figure that alludes to a worse trend.
-Kimbrel's plate appearances with 3-0 counts % for the last 3 years: 2.7% 6.9%, 8.3%. 4.5% career, 4.6% MLB average,
Kimbrel has almost tripled his number of 3-0 counts over 3 years. More balls, more looks from batters, more hitters counts, which are worse for pitching performance.
-Kimbrel's balls put into play % for the last 3 years: 14%, 17.1%, 21.6%. 17.5 % career 28.7% MLB average
Up 7% over 3 years. Hitters are making more contact against Kimbrel.
-Kimbrel's balls in play %: 22%, 31%, 35%. 24% career average, and 23% MLB average. So Kimbrel wasn't an elite contact manager, allowing balls hit into play similar to other MLB pitchers. Do note how that rate skyrocketed though.
-Kimbrel's HR rate for the last 3 years: 2.4%, 2.8%, 9.4%. career 2% MLB 2.8%. Now this statistic totally skyrocketed. For RPs, it can be the victim of looking off due to small sample size. But that alarming trend is the key to why his ERA imploded. Considering some of the indications of harder contact against him, this may not be an outlier.
-Kimbrel's HR/fly ball rate last 5 years: 10.3%, 6.7%, 10%, 10.3%, 25.7%. Career 8.3% MLB average 23%.
Fairly consistent, then a spike in '19. Kimbrel was once an elite manager of home runs. If he keeps the ball in the park, good things happen. That rate spiked last year, and what's most alarming is that it was not an outlier for MLB average. He literally went from MLB great to MLB average, and it destroyed his performance.
If the above list was too long to read, here's the summary for the last 3 years: Kimbrel's strikeouts are declining rapidly. Kimbrel's walks are increasing slightly. Batters are hitting him harder, and hitting him hard more often. He's not fooling batters like he once was. Batters are squaring him up and taking him out of the park at an increased rate, and it does not appear to be a major fluke.
A lot of this goes back to Theo's front office, Kimbrel's delayed signing and overall lack of interest. What scared off teams from signing the best relief pitcher on the market? I had heard he had a down second half in 2018, so let's take a look at raw numbers.
Here are Kimbrel's splits from 2018:
1st Half: 1.77 ERA / 40.2 IP / 5 HR / 16 BB / 62 Ks
2nd Half: 4.57 ERA / 21.2 IP / 2 HR 15 BB / 34 K
Playoffs: 5.91 ERA in 10.2 IP. Gave up runs in five out of nine appearances, including 4 in a row to start the playoffs. 12 walks and 14 hits allowed for a WHIP over 2.000. He went 6/6 in save chances but was clearly off.
In this snippet, you'll see that walks were up. Has Kimbrel been losing control? I'm going to chart out two periods in time: before decline (2017 and first half 2018), and after (second half 2018 and 2019)
From when his struggles started we have these trends:
-Fastball is being thrown for balls 5% more, and the curve is being thrown for balls almost 7% more
-Swing and misses on his fastball dropped by nearly 7%
-Hitters are swinging at his fastball 7% less
Let's look at pitch location now:
-More pitches down in the zone, particularly to the RHB side. Nearly 8.5%+ overall
-Balls high: 20% before 16.8% now. Strikes in the upper third of zone: 14% before, 10% now
-Before decline 40% strikes, 60% balls. After decline: 35% strikes, 65% out. Kimbrel's been throwing 5% less strikes.
Conclusion: He's throwing nearly 5% less strikes, and missing more in the bottom of the zone, as well as high and away.
I mentioned he wasn't striking as many people out, a problem for a strikeout pitcher. It's likely a big reason why he hasn't been effective. Let's see what the correlation is between lack of strikeouts and performance.
Here is a look at Kimbrel's performance from the last 3 years. As the strikeouts have decreased, in unison the performance has too. Drastically so. The trend began halfway through 2018. What negative trends that began in 2018 continued on almost in unison with is 2019 performance. Given what I mentioned about age for pitchers, and I don't have much confidence that Kimbrel turns it around. There is nothing historically that says he will.
Going forward, I'm not sure what to expect. I discovered the strong impact that Craig Kimbrel's fastball velocity has on his performance. If in 2020 he gets it back up to 98 quickly, then I'll breathe a lot easier. If he can't get to 97 and dips into the 95 range, he's in trouble. It seems like the trend is for him to give up more and stronger contact, and hopefully, he can reverse that trend. There's also the matter of walk rate. If he can keep it under 5 per 9, that's a start. under 4 might be vintage Kimbrel. We'll have to wait and see if he'll miss the bottom of the zone.
I think by the end of May, we will know what kind of season he is in for. I hope that I am wrong, but I am very pessimistic right now.
Bottom line: the Cubs need a plan B for closer. Honestly, if another team offered to take Kimbrel's contract off Thed's hands, I'd say yes pretty quickly. Craig Kimbrel could be pitching out his last contract in the next 2 years.
-I checked pitch movement (both horizontal and vertical) for both his fastball and curve from the last 3 years, and there were no obvious trends. The movement remained consistent, meaning his curveball isn't losing bite. There wasn't much variance from month to month, and all of those figures lined up with his career numbers.
-Grooved pitches, AKA meatballs were up slightly in 2019. See chart from brooks. After maintaining an average close to 6% for '17/'18, Kimbrel was above 10% for June and September of 2019, which were also his two worst months. Grooved pitches are essentially meatballs down the middle. Can be bad control, release point etc.
-Kimbrel's horizontal and vertical release points are fairly consistent over the last 3 years. It tends to rise over the course of a year, but I didn't see any correlation between performance and release point.
-Kimbrel's splits were fairly consistent vs batter handedness for '17/'18. He was better vs RHB for those two years, then put up a reverse split for 2019. Overall his performance matched the splits
, so he didn't start falling apart vs RHB while still being good against left-handed hitters.
-Kimbrel's pitch choice in count situations was pretty consistent from his successful 1.5 seasons to his decline phase of the last year and a half. The only variance was that in two-strike counts, he began going curve about 15% more over the fastball. Backs up the lack of power that pitch is generating.