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Craig Kimbrel’s command has led him back to dominance

Who would’ve thought we’d be talking about Craig Kimbrel as one of the league’s best bullpen arms in the year 2021?

MLB: New York Mets at Chicago Cubs Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

If you were to take a quick peak at the pitching staff of the Chicago Cubs, it likely wouldn’t register that anybody in that group could be tagged with the all-important “elite” label. With Kyle Hendricks stumbling out of the gate, a group of middling arms behind him in the rotation, and a bullpen composed almost exclusively of the throw-it-against-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks approach, it isn’t difficult to understand why it’s been a lot of misses up on the bump for the Cubs.

Enter Craig Kimbrel. Or should we say, re-enter Craig Kimbrel. The formerly elite closer signed a three-year pact with the Cubs in 2019 only to struggle mightily in the subsequent months. Recently, he has very much returned to the form that he displayed in his time with Atlanta and Boston (did anybody else entirely forget he pitched in San Diego for a year? Me neither, I was just asking).

But for a group of arms that has been so volatile to start the year, Kimbrel has represented a source of stability. Despite his history, this is still a relatively surprising development given his age (relative to the fact that he’s a high gas reliever) and his output in the last two years.

In 2019, the now-32-year-old turned in a 6.53 ERA and a FIP of 8.00. His strikeout rate was just a touch over 13 per nine, which almost matched his ‘18 rate, while he walked hitters at a clip of 5.23/9. Most concerning was his penchant for giving up the long ball. His 36 percent FB/HR ratio was almost three times higher than any rate at any point in his career. However, late start to the year, you probably give the guy a pass. Except he followed it up in 2020 with walk rate over seven per nine and a 16.7 percent HR/FB that would have been a career high had the previous year not happened.

Even with consecutive years that could classify as “weird” and perhaps offer at least some justification for Kimbrel having the struggles that he did, the trends there didn’t paint a pretty picture for a reliever that the Cubs invested a lot in to anchor the backend of their bullpen.

Obviously the walk rate and the HR/FB ratios stand out, but he also surrendered hard contact at a rate of 46.2 percent in 2019 and 51.9 percent in 2020. Those are the two highest marks of his career, with the latter coming in at a pretty wide margin even from 2019. Barrel% sat at 17.3 and 18.5 percent, respectively, both of which are also wildly higher than any figure he had previously posted there. His fastball velocity also dipped a touch in those two years (96.6), and, in 2020, opposing hitters swung just 37.7 percent of the time, easily the lowest mark of his career.

To put it simply, while Kimbrel still had decent strikeout numbers, he still gave up far too much hard contact, far too much flyball contact, and was unable to fool hitters in remotely the same fashion. When hitters did swing, which wasn’t terribly often, they often connected to disastrous results. So after he turned in a 12.15 ERA during the spring, the assumption was that Kimbrel was cooked.

And yet, here we are in 2021 talking about just how good Craig Kimbrel has been. Thus far in the young season, he has yet to surrender an earned run through eight appearances. His strikeout rate sits at 14.00 per nine and his CSW% is back up to 36.6, his highest mark since 2017. Hitters are swinging at a rate (45.5) more akin to his career norms (46.0), including a 32.6 percent chase rate (up a full eight percent from 2020). The Hard% has plummeted to 14.3 percent, and he hasn’t had a single barrel’s worth of contact against him. Kimbrel’s 0.5 fWAR is the second-highest figure among relievers to this point.

Percentile rankings, futile as they may be this early in the season, seem to support that. As of this writing, Kimbrel’s in the 97th in K% and the 95th in both Whiff% and xERA. He’s also in the 97th in average exit velocity against and the 92nd in Barrel%. His Chase%, while not quite as strong, still sits in the 79th. It all adds up to one thought: he’s back!

But what’s changed here? In a broad sense, once a reliever goes, he’s gone forever. Perhaps an elite type like Kimbrel is more adept at recovering from such a spiral, but what exactly is different that has allowed Kimbrel to return from the precipice of irrelevance to being 1. The stabilizing force that he is for the Cubs and 2. Likely one of the most attractive trade targets for contending teams this summer?

Location has a lot to do with it. Because, largely, the velocity and movement have always been there. Kimbrel’s been hucking 98—with only a little bit of occasional early-season fluctuation in his stint on the North Side—and the movement on his pitches has remained relatively constant.

This is Craig Kimbrel in 2020:

Craig Kimbrel pitch arsenal 2020
via Baseball Savant

That’s messy. This is Craig Kimbrel in 2021:

Craig Kimbrel pitch arsenal 2021
via Baseball Savant

Kimbrel has adjusted his mechanics and has visibly returned to exactly what he is trying to accomplish with both the fastball and the curve. He’s generating whiffs on the four-seamer at a 36.6 percent rate. That’s not only up six percent from 2020, but is his highest whiff rate on that pitch since 2012. The curveball isn’t at quite the same level, but is still garnering swing-and-misses at a 44.0 percent rate, mostly in line with his career norms. The bottom line is that those tweaks in mechanics have Kimbrel able to deploy his already dominant pitch arsenal in a way that he wasn’t able to in the two years prior, despite very little change in velo and movement.

And it’s not as if there’s some underlying thing that indicates Kimbrel’s doomed to implode in the way that his compatriots on the Cubs’ staff have in recent weeks. Sure, opponents are currently going for a .071 BABIP at this point—always a surefire sign that something’s gotta give. But they’re also sitting at a .135 xBA and a .192 xSLG. Kimbrel’s xERA is 1.81. That soft contact combines with a low GB% to really work in his favor, especially considering the Cubs’ strong defensive outfield.

This isn’t an anomaly for Kimbrel either. It’s been going on since the middle of last August.’s Jordan Bastian had a writeup on what that stretch has looked like for Kimbrel, including some of the command stuff. The simplified version? A 55.6 strikeout percentage and an opponents’ batting average of .073. Add up the command and the whiffs and the contact trends and everything’s coming up Kimbrel. Sure, you’d like the walk numbers to be a touch better, but when you can compensate with the formula that Kimbrel is utilizing and managing to strand 100 percent of runners—which is totally sustainable—you can live with it.

In any case, it’s a far cry from where we were last year with Kimbrel, where opposing hitters were laying off most of what came out of his hand and teeing off when they did swing. And it might be an obvious thing to say that “historically dominant reliever is actually good, it turns out,” but, again, when relief pitchers go, they go. And Kimbrel didn’t have to reinvent himself or his arsenal in the way that some pitchers have had to do in order to remain afloat at the major league level. The stuff has always been there, but the command is back, and Craig Kimbrel will likely make a contending team very happy at some point in the next few months.

Randy Holt is a contributing writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @RandallPnkFloyd.