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Craig Kimbrel might be a problem

When your relief ace can’t throw strikes, that’s bad.

Divisional Round - Boston Red Sox v New York Yankees - Game Four Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

The Boston Red Sox advanced to the ALCS on Tuesday night, but Craig Kimbrel nearly gave Red Sox fans a heart attack in the process. Alex Cora put him in to protect a a three-run lead in the ninth inning, and Kimbrel nearly blew it. He gave up two runs on one single, two walks, and one HBP. His control was terrible, throwing just 13 strikes on 28 pitches. It was one of the ugliest saves a pitcher can get.

Kimbrel was incredibly fortunate to come out of that game with a Red Sox victory. Giancarlo Stanton could have easily ended the game with one swing, but he was clearly overeager to do so by pressing too much at the plate. Gary Sánchez hit a fly ball that was not too far off from a walk-off grand slam.

Kimbrel enjoyed the most luck on the final play of the game. My son Gleyber hit a weak grounder to Eduardo Núñez who charged the ball and made the throw to first. It was a strong throw, but not an accurate one. Steve Pearce made a great stretch play, somehow snagging the ball while keeping his foot on first base. The thing is that neither one of those players are exactly 80-grade defenders.

Pearce is an average defender at first, but Núñez is not an average defender anywhere. One would think that a utility infielder would be a better defender, but he isn’t. For example, he does not really have the arm for third. But somehow, he fields a difficult grounder and makes a strong throw to first. This was definitely a low percentage play.

You always have to be careful when analyzing relievers because they pitch in small sample sizes, but Kimbrel’s control has been up and down over his career. It was pretty bad over his first two seasons, and then it improved to better than average in the subsequent two years. His walk rate shot up to almost 11 percent in his last year on the Braves. His walk rate got even worse in his first year in Boston, rising to 13.6 percent, which was the third-worst in the baseball among relievers. Somehow that improved to 5.5 percent the following year.

Over the first half of this season, Kimbrel’s walk rate went back up to 10.3 percent, but he combined that with a 1.77 RA9 so he got away with it. Then his walk rate went to nearly double the league average at 16.5 percent in the second half. Only three relievers had a worse walk rate. He stopped getting away with it, as he had a 4.57 RA9 over that time.

Kimbrel had an outing like Tuesday in his second to last outing of the regular season... and it was against the Orioles. He faced five hitters and got only one of them out, giving up three walks in the process. One run scored on a wild pitch. Kimbrel was pulled with one out and the bases loaded. Robby Scott came in and let the three inherited runners score. Kimbrel finished with a line of 13 innings pitched, three walks, and four runs.

This all leads to a tweet I saw from Baseball Prospectus founder Rany Jazayerli:

Calling the Kimbrel’s walk rate “pedestrian” is being kind. This is not exactly a hot take, but it is really hard for a closer to succeed with a high walk rate. Kimbrel also gave up three walks in an outing in late July, giving up two runs in a blown save. Before that he had not given up three walks in an outing since September 28th... in 2016. He gave up four runs and failed to get a single batter out. Five times this season Kimbrel had an outing where he walked two batters. He gave up runs in three of those five outings.

We are going by small samples here, but Kimbrel has struggled with control more often than not during his entire career. The Astros are nearly a flawless team, and they draw plenty of walks. The Red Sox already have a less than stellar bullpen. If Kimbrel can’t find his 2017 form, no lead will be safe.

. . .

Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.