Kimbrel: closer to trouble or same as always?

Kevin Youkulele

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Thought this merited its own discussion:
Kimbrel is going to be a problem if he can't get his control back. He's throwing 37% of his pitches in the strike zone compared to around 45% over the rest of his career. It's clear that you can have success against him just going up there and taking pitches until he can get one over. I don't know if it was the lost spring or some injury he's had, but it's been the case all year long and hasn't shown any signs of getting better.
Let's go to the data. From Fangraphs (major league only):
upload_2018-8-8_9-31-5.png

2018 Game log going back to May:
upload_2018-8-8_9-32-23.png
Walk and HR rates are both higher than typical--2nd highest (excluding partial rookie season) and highest, respectively. Not surprisingly, then, FIP/xFIP don't like him so much this year.

June 11 through July 2 saw 8 walks in 7 2/3 IP. There were another 3 walks on July 27. Those 11 are about half of his walks for the year. It seems like he may be more prone to fits of wildness than in the past. On the other hand, it could be a signal that something has been not quite right since some time in June.

Having had 2 bad walk games on 7/27 and 8/4 makes it more likely that we perceive apparent control problems.

I wonder if the HR rate is just a consequence of there being more uppercut-type swings due to increasing interest in launch angle. His ground ball rate is near its minimum for his career.
 

Savin Hillbilly

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I wonder if the HR rate is just a consequence of there being more uppercut-type swings due to increasing interest in launch angle. His ground ball rate is near its minimum for his career.
Yes, but his FB rate is only a little higher than last year, and not even quite as high as two years ago. What has gone up is his HR/FB (8.2% in 2016, then 12.8%, now 14.0%). People aren't hitting it in the air off him more, but they're hitting it harder when they do.

But I think the basic problem is that, as Max Power suggested, he's just getting behind too much. He's throwing fewer strikes than ever, and hitters are catching on: his O-Swing allowed is down this year, while his Z-Swing allowed is up. His first-strike percentage is down to 57.5%, from 63.0% last year and 68.0% the year before that. 34% of PA against him this year are ending on a hitter's count, vs. 24% last year. No matter how good your stuff is, that's going to bite you.
 

bosockboy

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Feels like he is nibbling. He goes for that dotted outside corner strike and if he doesn’t get the call he falls behind. He puts a lot into the hands of the umpire.
 

Kliq

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Yes, but his FB rate is only a little higher than last year, and not even quite as high as two years ago. What has gone up is his HR/FB (8.2% in 2016, then 12.8%, now 14.0%). People aren't hitting it in the air off him more, but they're hitting it harder when they do.

But I think the basic problem is that, as Max Power suggested, he's just getting behind too much. He's throwing fewer strikes than ever, and hitters are catching on: his O-Swing allowed is down this year, while his Z-Swing allowed is up. His first-strike percentage is down to 57.5%, from 63.0% last year and 68.0% the year before that. 34% of PA against him this year are ending on a hitter's count, vs. 24% last year. No matter how good your stuff is, that's going to bite you.
This is pretty much what happened last night. He threw I believe three straight breaking balls to Smoak and fell behind 3-0; and Smoak (and everyone in the ballpark) knew Kimbrel was going to throw him a fastball; and no matter how hard you throw a good hitter can turn on a fastball if they know it's coming.
 

tims4wins

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I don't know if this means anything, but his splits in save vs. non-save situations are interesting
Save: 37 G, 139 PA (3.76 PA/G), 17 H, 13 BB, 54 K (4.15:1), .136 AVG, .223 OBP, .304 SLG, .804 WHIP
Non-Save: 10 G, 47 PA (4.70 PA/G), 10 H, 8 BB, 15 K (1.88:1), .263 AVG, .391 OBP, .474 SLG, 1.862 WHIP

Also, he has been pretty bad in the 8th inning: .300 AVG / .462 OBP / .900 SLG
 

DJnVa

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Yes, but his FB rate is only a little higher than last year, and not even quite as high as two years ago. What has gone up is his HR/FB (8.2% in 2016, then 12.8%, now 14.0%). People aren't hitting it in the air off him more, but they're hitting it harder when they do.
But they are hitting it in air more aren't they? GB% last year was 37%, this year it's 28.7%. Coupled with fewer strikes (especially first pitch strikes) and he's behind in count more often, allowing a hitter to sit on something a bit more than usual.

His walk rate is a lot higher than last season, but last season was an outlier. This year is 4.0% and in every year but 1 in last 5 it's been above 3.3%
 

The Filthy One

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Brooksbaseball-Chart.png

He's throwing his curveball a lot more than he has in the past. Perhaps compensating for weaker fastball. If he either can't locate the fastball or doesn't feel it has sufficient velocity, that could explain a new reliance on the curve. Just anecdotally, it feels like he throws the curve way too much. But it's not like I'm some expert on it.
 

DennyDoyle'sBoil

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I've posted about this in gamethreads but to me, by far, the single most telling stat is zone%. Speier talks about this some.

Here are Kimbrel's career numbers for zone%

2010 47.2%
2011 45.0%
2012 49.5%
2013 45.3%
2014 46.3%
2015 45.5%
2016 42.1%
2017 47.4%
2018 37.6%
Average 45.1%

So, Kimbrel is down about 10 percent from last year on balls pitched in the zone and down about 8 percent from his career average. To understand how significant these numbers are, consider that 45 percent is league average. Taking out the few outliers the range is about 48.5 percent at the very high end to about 37.5 percent at the very low end leaguewide. So, when we talk about a 10 percent difference, this is not a 10 percent difference over all, but it's a 10 percent difference on a spectrum where the deviation across the major leagues is only about 12 percent. So, we're talking about a significant deviation.

What is the right strategy against a pitcher who fails to throw the ball in the zone 62.5 percent of the time? Patience. If you keep your bat on your shoulder you're going to get walked a very significant number of times. And even if you don't, you're going to find yourself in hitters counts more often than not.

I was just amazed at the beginning of the year how Kimbrel was routinely getting batters out without ever throwing them a strike except occasionally strike 1. The irony was that Kimbrel's poor zone% was actually making him the most effective closer in baseball. He had a reputation as a strike thrower. But he wasn't actually throwing them in the zone. So batters were thinking they had to swing and they were routinely getting themselves out on balls that they couldn't hit or couldn't hit well. The worst thing you can do against a guy with a terrible zone percentage is swing away. (As an aside, this is why watching the Red Sox against Sabathia this year has been so incredibly frustrating at times. Sabbathia has a reputation as a zone pounder. But he's near the bottom of the league in zone% this year. Until the most recent game, the Red Sox approach has been to swing away against him and he's been inducing weak contact. They were much more patient last time.)

But around the all star break, the memo seemed to get around. You had to wait Kimbrel out. Make him throw strike one. Take pitches. Even if you are not seeing the ball well, what difference does it make when there's a 2/3ds chances that the ball is going to be called a ball. Wait until he has to throw you a strike and then you can handle the pitch. Make him think he needs to throw curves to get ahead. Take the walk if you need to. 37.6 percent is too low. It puts the hitter in a better position and neutralizes his filthy stuff and ability to be deceptive.

Incidentally, I also think it's possible this helps explain some of the difference between save and nonsave opportunities. When you're one run down, what do you do? You are aggressive and try to hit a home run. When batters are in that position, Kimbrel's wildness helps. How many outs have we seen him get with batters getting themselves out by looking foolish on balls a foot above the strike zone or down in the dirt? (It's a weird day to be making this point given that he gave up a home run in a one run game, but bear with me.) When teams are down more than 2 runs, though, the approach is totally different. There, you need runners. (As you do when it's a tie game and there is less than two outs.) You're more patient. Kimbrel is more effective when the tying run is at the plate than when it's not. I think this is not because of anything he does or doesn't do differently but because of the approach of the batter.
 

DJnVa

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What site has batting average against certain pitch types?
 

Zupcic Fan

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There are so many times in the past where Kimbrel has had a fastball that no human could hit that I always felt both Leon and Vasquez called far too many breaking pitches, which often serve no purpose other than to get the at bat into a hitter's count. I have always wondered whether Kimbrel would be more successful if he just did what Mariano did---throw the same pitch every single time until somebody proves he can hit it.----especially now when he never seems to be able to control the breaking pitch. I think the only reason he gave up the home run last night is that he reached a count where he had to concentrate more on throwing a strike than on just unleashing the heat. I know it's possible that his fastball might be hot more if he adapted this approach and the word got out, but it always looks to me like it's an unhittable pitch even if they know it's coming. His breaking pitch never seems to accomplish anything.
 

Adrian's Dome

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He's throwing his curveball a lot more than he has in the past. Perhaps compensating for weaker fastball. If he either can't locate the fastball or doesn't feel it has sufficient velocity, that could explain a new reliance on the curve. Just anecdotally, it feels like he throws the curve way too much. But it's not like I'm some expert on it.
I feel as if this is important, because it sure seems like he doesn't drop the breaking ball in for a called strike often, which will inevitably lead to batters being patient and sitting fastball (which would explain both the elevated HR rate and the lowered strike rate.)

May or may not be what's going on, but it's worth sniffing around.
 

ehaz

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I’m not really worried about Kimbrel. That being said, I don’t think the drop off from Kimbrel to Familia/Herrera/Miller is worth ~$50M.

Quite a few relief pitchers will be free agents besides those three. David Robertson and Cody Allen, for example. I’d rather pay two guys that had not so great years on shorter commitments than Craig.
 

mauidano

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Even to the naked eye it seems clear that Kimbrel is missing the zone quite a bit and falling behind. Three straight missed curves last night to Smoak. Obviously he knows he's gonna get a 4 seam FB. Not gonna take one there. Can't fall behind like that on a regular basis and not be punished. And he was and has been punished lately. Not a sure thing but still better than anyone else I would rather have right now. Live and die with your closer.
 

Jim Ed Rice in HOF

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I feel as if this is important, because it sure seems like he doesn't drop the breaking ball in for a called strike often, which will inevitably lead to batters being patient and sitting fastball (which would explain both the elevated HR rate and the lowered strike rate.)

May or may not be what's going on, but it's worth sniffing around.
Here are a couple of snapshots from Brooks showing slugging percentage in 2017 and 2018 for what they define as hard pitches. It appears there's more success on those pitches this year vs. last which would support that theory. The striking thing to me is the middle/middle success this year vs. last year.
2017slgfast.JPG 2018slgfast.JPG
 

Dewey'sCannon

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I think Kimbrel's recent problems are just further demonstration of the old adage that the most important pitch is strike one. He's falling behind in counts, so hitters can afford to be patient and wait on a fastball in a location they can hit it. Like most pitchers with nasty breaking balls, his advantage comes when he gets ahead in the count and can get hitters to chase out of the zone. So he's either got to throw more fastballs early in the count to get ahead, or find a way to get the curveball into the strike zone (maybe he needs to take something off it, at least until hitters stop going up there in "take" mode).
 

tims4wins

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I think Kimbrel's recent problems are just further demonstration of the old adage that the most important pitch is strike one. He's falling behind in counts, so hitters can afford to be patient and wait on a fastball in a location they can hit it. Like most pitchers with nasty breaking balls, his advantage comes when he gets ahead in the count and can get hitters to chase out of the zone. So he's either got to throw more fastballs early in the count to get ahead, or find a way to get the curveball into the strike zone (maybe he needs to take something off it, at least until hitters stop going up there in "take" mode).
Yep.

Season OPS against: .608
After 1-0: .663
After 2-0: 1.184
After 3-0: 2.583
Batter ahead: 1.058
Batter behind: .500
Even count: .286
 

Van Everyman

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FWIW, Cora seemed pretty sanguine about this in his post game interview -- and thinks it's all about the curve:

Sox manager Alex Cora feels Kimbrel has lost his curveball.

“You see them foul it off, taking it right away,” he said. “It seems like recognizing that right away it’s a ball. They’re not offering.

“Like everybody else, we’ll get back and take a look at it. We’ll fix him and if we have a save situation, he’ll be there tomorrow.”
https://www.bostonglobe.com/sports/redsox/2018/08/07/mitch-moreland-homer-helps-red-sox-beat-blue-jays/XGux0uHsDYMEf2poI86lOO/story.html
 

Savin Hillbilly

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The wrong side of the bridge....
But they are hitting it in air more aren't they? GB% last year was 37%, this year it's 28.7%. Coupled with fewer strikes (especially first pitch strikes) and he's behind in count more often, allowing a hitter to sit on something a bit more than usual.
I guess it depends on whether you define line drives as "in the air." The FB rate is up only a smidgen (43.5% to 45.7%), but the LD rate is way up (19.4% to 25.5%), which accounts for most of the GB rate decrease. The increase in home runs results from the combination of the FB% and HR/FB increases, both of which are not large in themselves.

What's extremely odd is that even though the LD% has spiked, the BABIP allowed has gone way down (from .260 to .236). And that's because the ground-ball BABIP has plummeted. One way of interpreting the combination of lower GB% and lower GB BABIP is that hitters are squaring the ball up better off him -- which may be turning the best of the former ground balls into line drives (this is confirmed by the fact that a much smaller percentage of the ground balls this year are falling into FG's "Hard" category, while more of them are "Medium" -- which is presumably the easiest group to turn into outs.)

I don't know if this means anything, but his splits in save vs. non-save situations are interesting
Save: 37 G, 139 PA (3.76 PA/G), 17 H, 13 BB, 54 K (4.15:1), .136 AVG, .223 OBP, .304 SLG, .804 WHIP
Non-Save: 10 G, 47 PA (4.70 PA/G), 10 H, 8 BB, 15 K (1.88:1), .263 AVG, .391 OBP, .474 SLG, 1.862 WHIP

Also, he has been pretty bad in the 8th inning: .300 AVG / .462 OBP / .900 SLG
It might mean something, but not in relation to last night, which was a 9th-inning save situation.
 

Bergs

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If I'm doing this right, here are his Fastball stats - you can toggle to the other pitch types.

https://www.fangraphs.com/pitchfx.aspx?playerid=6655&position=P&pitch=FA
Looking at his balls/strikes is pretty cool:

2017 link: https://www.fangraphs.com/zonegrid.aspx?playerid=6655&position=P&ss=&se=&type=0&hand=&count=&blur=0&grid=5&view=&pitch=&season=2017&data=pi

2018 Link: https://www.fangraphs.com/zonegrid.aspx?playerid=6655&position=P&ss=&se=&type=0&hand=&count=&blur=0&grid=5&view=&pitch=&season=2018&data=pi

He's significantly more prone to throwing it low and away (low and left) (11.6% last year, 19.2% this year).


Looking at his curve numbers, it's pretty much the same: 29.3% in 2017 to 40.2% in 2018 (in the bottom left 3 boxes out of the zone). That said he was missing with it up last night, so whatever.

2017 Link: https://www.fangraphs.com/zonegrid.aspx?playerid=6655&position=P&ss=2017-04-03&se=2017-09-30&type=0&hand=all&count=all&blur=0&grid=5&view=pit&pitch=CU&season=all&data=pi


2018 Link: https://www.fangraphs.com/zonegrid.aspx?playerid=6655&position=P&ss=2018-03-30&se=2018-08-07&type=0&hand=all&count=all&blur=0&grid=5&view=pit&pitch=CU&season=all&data=pi

As far as the curve goes, contact rates are similar, offensive performance is similar (actually, hitters who bothered to swing at it had more luck last year), etc. The significant difference is he's ~twice as likely to throw it for a ball as last year.

I haven't played on Fangraphs in forever. They have some kickass shit going on up there!
 
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Cesar Crespo

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I'm not worried about Kimbrel but at the same time I don't want him back next year at the money he is going to command. I'm also not confident he's an elite bullpen arm in 3 years. He seems like the type of guy you'd be paying based on what he's done and not what he's going to do going forward.

As elite as he is, I'd guess his clean inning % is behind a lot of other closers. He's nerve wracking to watch. I'd also let Kelly walk, which means putting a lot of faith into Matt Barnes and finding another bullpen arm or two in the off season. Some of that would depend on what Thornburg does going forward as well.