Red Sox: How to save Craig Kimbrel

May 28, 2016; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Boston Red Sox relief pitcher Craig Kimbrel (46) delivers a pitch against Toronto Blue Jays at Rogers Centre. He was the losing pitcher in a 10-9 defeat. Mandatory Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
May 28, 2016; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Boston Red Sox relief pitcher Craig Kimbrel (46) delivers a pitch against Toronto Blue Jays at Rogers Centre. He was the losing pitcher in a 10-9 defeat. Mandatory Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports /

The numbers show that Boston Red Sox closer Craig Kimbrel isn’t the same pitcher when he isn’t in line to earn a save.

Craig Kimbrel is an All-Star closer. We know this not only because he was recently selected for his fifth appearance in the Midsummer Classic, but also because we have sufficient evidence to show that the 28-year old flame thrower is one of the elite when he trots in from the bullpen to close out a game.

If by closer, we mean a pitcher that comes in to record the final three outs with his team leading by three runs or less, Kimbrel is certainly among the best in the game. The problem is when the Boston Red Sox have attempted to use him in any other role.

Kimbrel’s baffling inability to perform when there is no save to be earned was on display again Tuesday night. The Red Sox closer relieved starter David Price to begin the 9th inning, with his team trailing the Texas Rangers 3-2. It wasn’t a save situation, but manager John Farrell entrusted his closer to keep it a one-run game in hopes of a rally in the bottom of the inning.

More from Red Sox News

Instead, Kimbrel imploded to put the game out of reach. A lead-off walk was followed by a pair of singles and a three-run blast from Robinson Chirinos – the No. 9 hitter, who entered the game with only five homers all season. Just like that, Kimbrel was chased from the game, having allowed four earned runs without recording an out.

Kimbel would later call the outing the worst of his career, which seems right considering it’s the only time in his career he has failed to record at least one out.

The brutal appearance inflated his ERA from 2.53 to 3.66, but the more troubling aspect is the growing trend of Kimbrel failing in non-save situations. When there is a save to be earned, Kimbrel has been his regular dominant self, converting 17 of 19 opportunities while owning a dazzling 1.45 ERA.

Yet when Kimbrel enters the game in a non-save situation, it’s as if he’s not the same guy. 10 of the 13 earned runs he has allowed this season have come in non-save situations, while producing a 6.75 ERA in those appearances.

What is the cause of this Jekyll and Hyde routine? Kimbrel can’t quite put a finger on what the difference is for him when it’s not a save situation.

"“Wouldn’t say mentally,” Kimbrel told reporters after the game. “I go out there, definitely still trying to throw strikes and get guys out.”"

Many closers have historically struggled in non-save situations, but generally it’s when they have been brought in at the end of a blow out simply to get some work in. They often point to how difficult it can be for them to get their adrenaline pumping when they aren’t brought into a high-leverage spot because they aren’t used to that. Their job is to lock down the win with their team leading by three runs or less, so when they are suddenly put into a different role it takes them out of their comfort zone.

More from BoSox Injection

That wasn’t the case with Kimbrel last night and can’t explain his struggles this year, which primarily have come with the game tied or the Red Sox trailing in a close game. Against the Rangers Tuesday night it was a one-run game. Why would trailing by one instead of leading by one alter his approach? He certainly can’t blame a lack of adrenaline in that situation.

A dip in performance when a save isn’t on the line is nothing new for Kimbrel. For his career he owns a 1.49 ERA in save situations, but that inflates by over a full run to 2.51 in non-save situations. The Red Sox knew when they acquired him in a trade from the San Diego Padres last winter that this was part of his track record, yet Farrell continues to use him in non-save situations. Tuesday was the 14th time he has put Kimbrel in this position, covering 13 1/3 of the 30 innings he has thrown this season.

So the solution is simply to only use Kimbrel in save situations, right? If only it were that simple. The loss of Carson Smith to a season-ending injury depleted the depth at the back end of the Red Sox bullpen, while Koji Uehara and Junichi Tazawa have been far less effective than in years past. Farrell recognizes that Kimbrel has struggled in non-save situations, but he has a limited number of options he can trust in those spots.

"“The numbers bear it out – it’s been a difficult spot for him,” said Farrell after Tuesday’s game. “But again, I go to him because he’s the freshest arm out there right now.”"

This puts Farrell in an unenviable position. Kimbrel is by far his best option out of the bullpen, with a fastball that can touch triple-digits and a 13.5 K/9 that remains among the best in the league. Any manager would be eager to use a pitcher of that caliber, but if he can’t be trusted in a non-save situation then it severely limits when the most dangerous weapon out of the bullpen can be deployed.

Perhaps if the Red Sox manage to acquire another quality reliever or two before the trade deadline to add some depth to the bullpen it will allow Farrell to avoid using Kimbrel unless there is a save opportunity. Otherwise, barring a second-half rebound by some of the other incumbent relievers in Boston’s bullpen, the manager has no choice but to turn to his closer in a tight spot at the end of games, regardless of if the Red Sox are leading.

Next: Red Sox promote Bannister

The American League All-Star team may want to reconsider bringing Kimbrel along after his last implosion left him with numbers that no longer seem All-Star worthy. The Red Sox closer will still be making the trip back to San Diego, where he played with the Padres last season, but manager Ned Yost may not want to use him unless a save opportunity arises.