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Craig Kimbrel Is Good Again!

No not just because he went from the Cubs to the Sox. The new, or maybe old, Kimbrel is spotting his pitches much better compared to previous seasons

Chicago Cubs v Arizona Diamondbacks
Craig Kimbrel holds a 0.49 ERA this season.
Norm Hall/Getty Images

If Nick Madrigal and Codi Heuer were sent to the Chicago Cubs during this past offseason, a White Sox fan, or really anybody, would have assumed it would have been in exchange for Yu Darvish. Instead, after selling low on Darvish, the Cubs got those prospects for Craig Kimbrel.

Now, that would have been outrageous if it took place during the offseason. But now, it is a whole different story. The White Sox front office swung big for a big need: another high-leverage bullpen arm to pair with Liam Hendricks. And that arm was landed: Kimbrel brings over a 0.49 ERA and 0.71 WHIP this year, with vast playoff experience and a ring when he was in Boston back in 2018.

It would have been an awful trade in the offseason because of how far Kimbrel had fallen: From being the best closer in the game and on track to be one of the two best ever, to having two abysmal seasons in 2019 and 2020. Over those two years, Kimbrel had a 6.00 ERA (with an equally as bad FIP, so it wasn’t a fluke) and a 1.53 WHIP. Something has obviously changed, because he is now having possibly the best season in his career.

Let’s start with what hasn’t changed, to really see what is going on and why this Kimbrel has been almost unstoppable.

What has not changed, well, is Kimbrel’s pitches. He is still using two pitches, a 4-seam fastball (60%) and curveball (40%). He may be using the curve slightly more, but that has been trending since 2014, when he was using it just 27.4% of the time. The fastball velo is at 96.9 mph, the exact same to 2020, and it has been in the 96-97 range since 2018. There’s also not much different to the speed with his curve, either, and though the curve has lost about 1.5 inches of vertical drop, that may just be from the sticky stuff crackdown. So the stuff is actually not much different.

No, the 33-year-old did not just discover something left in the tank: He’s back to showing good command of the stuff he’s had for awhile.

Obviously, command starts with the ability to throw strikes, and Kimbrel did really struggle with that in his first two years with the Cubs. He had a 14.5% BB-rate over 36 innings from 2019-2020. In 36 23 innings this season (a nearly identical workload), that walk rate has fallen below double digits to 9.5%; it has not been below 10% since 2017, and it is pretty obvious as to why, when you look at the heat maps.

The other part of command comes with where the strikes are thrown. In Kimbrel’s case, he’s not leaving leaving pitches outside the zone as often, but he is also not leaving them in places to hit. In 2019, Kimbrel left pitches in the sweet-spot zone 48.1% of the time, and that ballooned up to 55.1% of the time in 2020, far and away the worst percentages of his career. The sweet-spot zone is right down the heart of the plate and, at least in 2021, pitchers are hitting the sweet spot 32.8% of the time. Though it is still worse than league average, Kimbrel has chiseled his percentage down to 40%. That has helped lead to a significant drop (around 15%) in hard-hit rate, along with a 5% barrel rate. Kimbrel has not had a barrel rate that low since 2016, and it was 18-19% the past two seasons. He is just not leaving the ball in hittable positions as often, so guys aren’t squaring up on the ball as well. It is as simple as that.

But let’s keep going with it, so you all see what he’s actually doing differently, beyond not leaving balls over the heart of the plate.

Now, Kimbrel does not have huge platoon splits over his career, but they do exist, so I want to break it down with both pitches against both handedness, just to give a more complete picture. On the left side of each of these captures of two heat maps will be 2019-20, and on the right will be 2021.

Fastball location to lefties for Kimbrel: on the left is 2019-2020 and on the right is 2021
Curve location to lefties for Kimbrel: on the left is 2019-202 and on the right is 2021

As you can all see, and quite clearly I might add, he is spotting the ball much better against lefties. From 2019-20, Kimbrel was catching a lot more of the plate, especially in hittable spots — much more often than this year. With his fastball, it was not getting away as much as he wants and honestly, he was positioning his fastball where hitters want pitches placed for batting practice. Kimbrel was not getting enough under his fastball to keep it higher as well, which was not a problem on his curve.

With Kimbrel’s breaking pitch, he couldn’t get enough over it to try and bury it, or at least hit the bottom of the zone. It was almost as if he hung curves every time, and just wanted the ball to be away so lefties couldn’t pull the ball as easily, or with as much power.

So far this year, Kimbrel’s results have completely changed. With the fastball, the location is more crisp. It is clearly where he wants to go most often, high and away to lefties, something he just wasn’t able to do with consistency in the two previous years. Kimbrel still does leave some fastballs over the heart of the plate, which is probably where some of the worse than league average sweet spot rate comes from.

Now Kimbrel’s curve is a bit different. Yes, he is putting it in a spot consistently, but the location has changed a bit. It looks like he basically tries to spot his curve middle and down, right at the black, but it also a bit more inside than 2019-20.

Fastball location to righties for Kimbrel: on the left is 2019-2020 and on the right is 2021
Curve location to righties for Kimbrel: on the left is 2019-2020 and on the right is 2021

Much of the same analysis from the left-handed batters can be imported to righties, like better location and more crispness, but there are some intriguing things here too that are slightly different. Like with the fastball, Kimbrel went from literally just leaving pitches over the heart of the plate, to going away. This time it is much more pronounced, there is no very dark red over the heart of the plate at all. The difference here is that he stays middle-away with the fastball and at just about 97 mph, that is tough to hit.

Much of it is the same with the curve as well, but with righties, the spots Kimbrel was throwing to were fine. They were not in the zone all the time, but if you took the location of his 2021 fastball with his 2020 curve, that would be a deadly combo, it’s just, why swing at a curve when the fastball was going to be in a sweet spot to hit? Now, Kimbrel’s fastball is a bit harder to get good contact on, or even decide to swing at, with it being on the border of the zone. Kimbrel can throw it a bit lower to keep bats from even sniffing the pitch when he uses it.

This command of the zone shows how and why Kimbrel is so much better than in previous years. Because he is throwing more strikes with the fastball and in much better locations, the curve does not have to be thrown in the zone as often to get strikes. That also means batters go fishing a bit more often, and that shows up in the numbers. Kimbrel’s chase rate has gone up to 33.1%, and the WHIFF rate would be a new career high for him in the Statcast era.

It took Kimbrel a long time to figure it out again, but he has, and the White Sox are now better for it.