Special to RSNStats.com by Guest Columnist Michael Barrell — I’m likely the only Red Sox fan defending closer Craig Kimbrel at this juncture, but hear me out.
Let’s get the obvious stuff out of the way. Yes, Wednesday’s loss to the Yankees was one that could/should have been avoided. A walk-off grand slam against a Yankees team that isn’t contending, on a night when not only the American League East crown is at stake but also achieving the best record for home field advantage in the playoffs is just not acceptable. But let’s examine it a little bit further.
The situation was a 3-0 lead going into the bottom of the ninth inning, the textbook definition of a save situation on the road. Craig Kimbrel is your guy. He has been all year long, to the tune of 30 saves in 33 tries. Kimbrel missed some time with knee surgery this season, but he came back surprisingly fast from that. Walks have been somewhat of an issue, but home runs allowed weren’t. It was set up how you draw it up and it didn’t work out. Add the hyper-adrenaline of it being a division clinching game and in the ultra-competitive AL East, it had the potential to become exactly what it was.
Kimbrel walked the first three men, throwing only nine of his 21 pitches for strikes. After a visit from the pitching coach, another walk brings in a run and brings out Manager John Farrell to take him out. Now, I was yelling at my TV like the rest of you that Farrell should have been out there one (or even two, if you think like me) batters earlier because it’s a game you needed and Craig was clearly having an off day. He should never have been in the game long enough to throw 29 pitches. That’s just bad managing. But I digress.
Diving deeper, let’s look at Kimbrel’s season up to that point.
Controlling Great Power
When you throw a near 100 MPH fastball, you’re going to have days when you can’t reel it in. There are very few men in the history of Major League Baseball who have thrown that hard who weren’t wild at some point. Nolan Ryan, one of the most celebrated flamethrowers of all time, walked over 100 men eleven times, leading the league seven of those seasons. In two of those years he walked over 200 guys. The point is, flamethrowing pitchers walk guys. I’m sure even Ryan and Aroldis Chapman have walked four in a game before (Editor’s note: Indeed, Ryan walked 4+ batters in one or fewer innings of work eight times in his career, Chapman has done it twice).
One other point that I vociferously argue—and no one seems to agree with me on—is that Kimbrel has had no real consistency behind the plate.
Baseball players are creatures of habit. Pitchers are no different, and neither are catchers. Pitchers have tendencies; catchers have tendencies. When they can’t get in sync, the trust between pitcher and catcher can be lost. The dynamic between a pitcher and a catcher cannot be understated and Craig has had five different catchers to work with this year: Ryan Hanigan, Blake Swihart, Christian Vazquez, Sandy Leon, and Bryan Holaday.
Oh, and before you jump all over me about how guys should be able to throw to any catcher, I offer you the combinations of Josh Beckett and Jason Varitek and Jon Lester and David Ross. Yes, both of those combinations worked together for an entire season without changes and they both won World Series titles.
One more point to consider. Kimbrel has made the fewest relief appearances of his career this season. Granted, some of that is attributed to the fact that he missed time with knee surgery, but it also means that his arm isn’t tired after the long grind of the baseball season. He’s still got the thunder. Kimbrel’s 55 relief appearances this season is a low number, especially considering that most relievers (closers or otherwise) typically find themselves called upon for close to 70 games. Still, Kimbrel is 30-for-33 in 2016 save chances and clearly making the most of his opportunities, limited as they have been. He has also faced the fewest number of batters in a season (outside of his partial debut season), so the numbers are skewed slightly compared to the rest of his career.
So let’s not be so quick to demonize Craig Kimbrel. His season is a result of inconsistencies beyond his control and trying to wield the lightning in his arm.
Remember, it looks so easy when it’s done right and it looks God-awful when it’s done wrong.
Michael Barrell is just a guy with an opinion. You can direct your hate mail to him on Twitter @Michael_Barrell