Red Sox Bullpen: What’s wrong with closer Craig Kimbrel?

BOSTON, MA - JULY 11: Craig Kimbrel #46 of the Boston Red Sox reacts after walking in a run in the eighth inning of a game against the Texas Rangers at Fenway Park on July 11, 2018 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - JULY 11: Craig Kimbrel #46 of the Boston Red Sox reacts after walking in a run in the eighth inning of a game against the Texas Rangers at Fenway Park on July 11, 2018 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images) /

Boston Red Sox closer Craig Kimbrel has uncharacteristically struggled lately. What’s wrong with the flame-throwing right-hander?

The bullpen has been one of the few weaknesses for the Boston Red Sox this season but one reliever they could always count on was the closer, Craig Kimbrel. That hasn’t been the case lately.

Kimbrel blew his fourth save of the season Tuesday night against the Toronto Blue Jays, extending a disturbing slump that has plagued him over the last two weeks. The right-hander has allowed at least one run in four of his last five appearances, producing an unsightly 8.44 ERA and .300 batting average against over that span. He has blown two of his last four save opportunities after failing to convert only two other prior opportunities all season.

Boston’s closer has been among the game’s elite this season. Kimbrel has converted 33-of-37 save opportunities for an 89.2% success rate that ranks eighth in the majors among relievers with 20+ saves this season. His 2.49 ERA and 1.02 WHIP still put him among the top relievers in baseball yet he still doesn’t seem like the same Kimbrel we are used to.

The ERA is high by Kimbrel’s lofty standards yet he’s fortunate it’s not higher. His 3.28 FIP is easily the worst of his career. He’s still racking up the strikeouts with a 13.2 K/9. That’s an elite level but it’s a steep drop from last year’s 16.4 K/9 and equals the lowest strikeout rate of his career. The decline in strikeouts makes it harder to mask his deficiencies in other areas.

Control has been the most troubling factor. Kimbrel’s 4.0 BB/9 rate is the second-worst of his career if you discount the small sample of his brief introduction to the majors in 2010. The only other time it was higher was in 2015 (5.1 BB/9), his first season in Boston. It’s no coincidence that was his worst season.

Locating his pitches has been particularly problematic of late. Kimbrel walked three batters in a blown save against the Minnesota Twins on July 27. He hung on to protect a four-run lead against the New York Yankees on August 4 despite issuing two free passes and allowing a run.

A lack of command doesn’t always mean walking batters. Pitchers can miss in the strike zone which can lead to more devastating damage. Kimbrel has already allowed six home runs this season, equaling his career high. We’re still in early August! His 1.1 HR/9 is the highest of his career, nearly doubling his career home run rate.

"“I think it’s been command of everything,” Kimbrel told reporters after Tuesday’s game, per WEEI’s Rob Bradford. “You can throw strikes but it depends on where you’re throwing them. You can have command in the zone or out of the zone. You kind of float through those as the year goes on. The last couple of weeks I’ve been struggling with some things and working through them. Even though I gave up the home run tonight I felt like I made a bunch of strides forward. Fastball was a little better tonight and breaking ball was sharp at times.”"

Tuesday night showed us both aspects of Kimbrel’s command issues. He couldn’t locate his curveball against Justin Smoak, quickly falling behind 3-0 in the count. Kimbrel served up a get-me-over strike down the middle of the plate but Smoak had the green light. The Blue Jays slugger crushed the fastball over the right-field fence to tie the game.

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If there’s a positive takeaway from Kimbrel’s struggles its that he hasn’t lost his velocity.  He has still been averaging north of 96 mph over his last five outings and can still crank it up higher when necessary. Kimbrel can get by against many hitters with his fastball alone when he’s dialing it up near triple-digits.

He’s still going to need to regain that breaking ball in order to become the shutdown closer we know he can be. Kimbrel is having trouble throwing it for strikes and he’s not fooling anyone with it. Opposing hitters have no trouble laying off his curve, a sign he’s either tipping the pitch or throwing it so far off the strike zone that it never looks appealing to the batter.

This is a mechanical problem that can be fixed. The Red Sox have a nine-game lead in the AL East, giving them a cushion that allows their closer to work out the kinks. He’s also fortunate to have a clutch offense that can deliver a comeback when he fails to slam the door shut. Boston still ended up winning last night after a five-run explosion in the tenth inning.

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It’s easier to forgive the closer for his blown save when the team ends up winning anyway. That won’t always be the case. The Red Sox need to get Kimbrel back on track so that they can have full confidence in him when the postseason arrives.