Red Sox are right to show concern over Craig Kimbrel’s workload

May 31, 2017; Chicago, IL, USA; Boston Red Sox relief pitcher Craig Kimbrel (46) reacts against the Chicago White Sox after the ninth inning at Guaranteed Rate Field. Mandatory Credit: Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports
May 31, 2017; Chicago, IL, USA; Boston Red Sox relief pitcher Craig Kimbrel (46) reacts against the Chicago White Sox after the ninth inning at Guaranteed Rate Field. Mandatory Credit: Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports /

Craig Kimbrel’s heavy workload hasn’t slowed his effectiveness, but the Red Sox are right to be concerned with the reliever’s number of multi-inning efforts at this point in the season.

Craig Kimbrel made history in the Bronx last night, but at what cost? He became the first pitcher in major league history to record five strikeouts in a four-out save situation with a 99 mph fastball that blew away Yankees slugger Aaron Judge.

Kimbrel has now given the Red Sox 17 saves this season, with a ridiculous 53 strikeouts in 26.2 innings pitched. However, he’s been called upon to log multiple innings in five of those 17 situations.

There’s a case to be made for nominating Kimbrel as the team’s MVP a trimester of the way through the season. After an above average, but disappointing by his own standards, season last year, he’s made good on his reputation and re-asserted himself as the premier closer in baseball.

He’s been basically perfect thus far and is setting down hitters at a better rate than National League pitchers set down American League pitchers who are unfortunate enough to have their starts fall on interleague dates. In 2012 he posted one of the best, if not the best, relief performances in baseball history by WAR (3.3) and FIP (0.78), which he’s easily on pace to beat this season.

It’s been an utterly exceptional season from the 29-year-old, but one that the Red Sox are right to worry about as his workload continues to climb. In an interview with WEEI, manager John Farrell expressed concern with the lengthy deployment of his star closer (particularly Tuesday night’s) as well as the team’s plan to monitor his usage over the coming days.

"“I’ll be honest with you, there’s reluctance on my part to continue to do that,” the Red Sox manager said. “There’s two days off leading up to it. When we’ve done it previously there’s usually been a day or two following where he’s been down. I think the only other time we’ve not done that is in Chicago where he had a couple of days off leading up to it and 20 pitches in an 1 1/3 innings and he saved the next day and we gave him a couple of days down. He’s extremely valuable. He’s incredibly talented. And will closely be monitored every time he walks to the mound.”"

His five appearances with more than three outs match his previous career high, which he set last season during his first year in Boston. He’s currently on pace to pitch roughly 75 innings, averaged out over a 162 game season, which would approach his previous career high of 77 set in 2011 as a member of the Braves. The Red Sox have worked Kimbrel all season, and probably more than they’re comfortable with.

The problem is, they don’t have a defined arm to rely upon to bridge that gap between the eighth inning and the end of the game when Kimbrel takes the mound. Matt Barnes, Joe Kelly, and Heath Hembree have had their chances to take control of the role, but none have run away with it. Kelly presents the most intriguing option, with a 1.42 ERA, 1.11 WHIP and the ability to touch triple digits, though the club would like to see him improve upon a lackluster K/9 of 6.39 before viewing him as a true setup man.

Tyler Thornburg was supposed to be the guy and before him, it was supposed to be Carson Smith, but neither has had the chance to claim their role due to injuries. That looks set to change with the news that Carson Smith threw to live batters for the first time in over a year on Wednesday, taking another step towards an eventual return to the team.

His return should alleviate most of Farrel’s concerns with Kimbrel over the rest of the season. In the early months, we’ve seen him deploy an aggressive approach – which has worked wonders – but isn’t sustainable over the course of the season.

Next: Watch Joe Kelly throw the fastest pitch of the 2017 season

As the summer months progress, expect Kimbrel’s multi-inning deployment to lessen as a means to preserve his effectiveness.