Craig Kimbrel got a lot of attention this past postseason for all the wrong reasons. He nearly gave countless Red Sox fans a heart attack, including my wife! Even those who incredulously cling to the save stat likely had a hard time defending his playoff performance. He gave up five runs over his first four of which were some of the ugliest saves a pitcher can get.
He had a 5.91 RA9 over the 10 2⁄3 innings he pitched in nine appearances. He struck out only 20 percent of the hitters faced, and walked a whopping 16 percent of them. Combine that with two home runs he allowed adds up to a 6.54 FIP in the playoffs. Opposing hitters slashed .231/.380/.462 against him.
Front offices are smart enough to not put much weight on postseason performance compared to the larger sample size of a player’s multi-year track record, so one might wonder why I am bringing it up. As I mentioned in my recent article on the Red Sox, the playoffs were a microcosm of Kimbrel’s career. His career is also a good example of the volatility of reliever performance.
Kimbrel has a career 2.06 RA9. That is obviously excellent. Believe it or not, that is the best ever for a reliever with at least 500 IP. In fact, you could drop that innings limit all the way down to just 50 and Kimbrel is still the all-time leader. That being said, his RA9 has fluctuated quite a bit from year to year. Not counting his debut season, his lowed single-season RA9 is 1.01, while his highest is 3.74. His career RA9 on the Braves is 1.59. Since then it has been 2.62.
On the positive side, Kimbrel’s strikeout rates have always been excellent. His career worst is 36.4 percent, which again, is still excellent. Twice in his career he has struck out approximately half of the hitters he faced, which is other worldly.
The biggest knock on Kimbrel has always been his control. The strange thing is just how wildly it has varied in his career. His career rate is 9.8 percent, which is not good. Over the past eight seasons, Kimbrel has had a double-digit walk rate four times, including a poor 12.6 percent rate in 2018.
Yet he had better than average walk rates in three of those eight seasons. He had a career-best 5.5 BB% just last year in a 2017 season that was one of the best seasons a reliever ever had. He had a 1.43 RA9 and struck out about half the hitters he faced. In 2018, his 36.6 percent zone rate was the eighth-worst in baseball among relievers.
I was critical of the Braves when they first extended Kimbrel. A four-year, $40.5 million deal with a team option for $13 million might not sound like much, but making long term commitments to relievers is rarely a good idea. In the Braves’ defense, if Kimbrel were to continue being one of the best closers in baseball — which happened — the team could save quite a bit of money in arbitration, even when accounting for the one free agent year they bought out. Arbitration pays big money for saves. The contract worked out well, but history shows that relievers are almost never that good for that long. The Braves got lucky.
Steamer projects Kimbrel’s true talent at a 3.06 RA9, 37.2 K%, and 9.8 BB%. I suspect that error bars for reliever projections are pretty wide because they perform in small samples, but Kimbrel’s has to be pretty wide even for a reliever.
I am at least confident enough to say that he will not pitch as poorly as he did in the playoffs over an extended period, but will a team want to hand out, say, the Wade Davis deal to Kimbrel? Because that is probably what he is looking for. Speaking of which, and I have been saying this a lot lately, breaking the bank for the bullpen worked out as poorly as one can imagine for the Rockies.
I have no problem with a team overpaying a productive player that they really need. However, the track record of highly paid relievers is quite poor. It is not that they did not produce enough to justify their contract. The problem is that they frequently barely produce at all, and too often do more harm than good.
Given Kimbrel’s erratic track record with his command, and just how poor it can get, he is awfully risky. On top of that, he is entering his age-31 season. There seems to be some serious red flags present. I would offer a contract along the lines of two years, $30 million. I could budge on the overall dollar amount, but I would hold firm on the two years. If his performance falls off a cliff, at least the commitment is low.
My prediction is that the contract I would offer would not get it done, even though he should take it. Last year’s free agency was pretty disappointing for the free agents involved, and now we are coming off a year where quite a few free agent relievers performed poorly. Just because I would not break the bank for Kimbrel does not mean he deserves to get Moosed.
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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.