The BoSox Injection staff reflects on the 2016 season by grading each member of the Boston Red Sox based on expectations for them entering the season.
Some may look at Craig Kimbrel‘s career-high 3.40 ERA, which nearly doubles his career rate, and consider his first season with the Boston Red Sox to be a disappointment. I would argue that this evaluation relies too heavily on only one statistic.
To get a more complete picture of Kimbrel’s season we have to look beyond the ERA and in doing so we find that the Red Sox closer remains among the best.
The 28-year old is no longer putting up the ridiculous numbers that he did in his early years with the Atlanta Braves, but that doesn’t mean he is no longer an elite closer. Kimbrel still flirts with triple-digit heat and his 14.09 K/9 not only put him near the top of the league, it’s the highest strikeout rate he’s posted since 2012.
Kimbrel finished eighth in the league in saves, converting 31 of 33 attempts. Among American League closers with over 20 saves this season, his 93.9 percent save percentage trailed only Zach Britton, the Baltimore Orioles closer who converted all 47 chances en route to a historic season.
ERA doesn’t always tell the full story. Kimbrel’s primary task was to lock down the ninth inning with his team leading by three runs or less. While the save statistic is becoming increasingly overrated, there’s no doubting Kimbrel’s brilliance in that role. He posted a 2.41 ERA is save situations this season, a number much more in line with his career level.
The problem was when manager John Farrell ran him out to the mound when there wasn’t a save on the line. In those situations, Kimbrel’s ERA inflated to 5.12 over 19 1/3 innings this season. Managers will occasionally use their closer when a game is already out of hand simply to get them some work if they haven’t been used recently, but those scenarios typically don’t turn out well for Kimbrel. It’s as if he needs the adrenaline of protecting a tight lead late in the game in order to be at his best. It’s not that Kimbrel wasn’t guilty of a few meltdowns that mattered, but there were also some poor outings that ultimately had little effect on that game or Boston’s season, yet did play a factor in dragging down his overall numbers.
Kimbrel’s season was clearly better than his ERA suggests, but it wasn’t without it’s flaws. Walks have always been an issue for the flame-throwing right-hander, but his 5.1 BB/9 rate is cringe worthy by any standards and the highest Kimbrel has posted since his brief major league debut in 2010.
While walks were the main culprit behind the dip in his numbers, adjusting to the AL may have been a factor as well. No, it’s not because he routinely had to face lineups with a DH for the first time. Kimbrel is a closer, so it’s not as if he had the luxury of facing opposing pitchers during his time in the NL. He faced his fare share of elite hitters before and the transition between leagues is less meaningful for a reliever. Still, Kimbrel had to get used to pitching in new ballparks against hitters he was less familiar with. Now that he’s had a full season to acclimate, brighter days should be ahead for the anchor of the Red Sox bullpen.
Kimbrel remains under contract for another year at $13.25 million with a team option for $13 million in 2018 that the Red Sox will almost certainly pick up given the bounty they gave the San Diego Padres to acquire him.
His numbers in save situations proves that Kimbrel is still among the best in the ninth inning role. What the Red Sox need is a more versatile reliever to fill the role that Andrew Miller did this postseason. The bullpen may be called upon to face the most dangerous part of the opposing lineup prior to the ninth inning, so they would be wise to bring in another lights out reliever to handle that task so that Kimbrel can be left to the save situations he’s most comfortable in.