The BoSox Injection team is grading the 2018 season for each member of the Boston Red Sox. Up next is closer Craig Kimbrel.
Craig Kimbrel has been one of the game’s most dominant relievers for nearly a decade and this year was no different. While he statistically took a step back from last year and the level he was at during his prime years in Atlanta, the Boston Red Sox closer remains among the elite.
Kimbrel was second in the American League in saves, converting 42 of 47 opportunities. That 89.4% success rate is only a ticket below his career 90.7 save percentage. Few are as reliable as Kimbrel in a save situation.
Yet there were some concerns with Kimbrel’s performance this season. His 2.74 ERA was the second-highest of his career and ranked only 8th among AL relievers who logged double-digits saves. Kimbrel’s 13.86 K/9 was the fourth highest in the league but was below his career rate and well behind last year’s 16.4 K/9 when he struck out nearly half the batters he faced.
A slight decline in strikeouts is no reason to panic considering Kimbrel remains among the best in the game at punching out opposing batters. More worrisome is the walks. Free passes had long been an issue for Kimbrel until last year’s remarkable campaign when he set a career-best 1.8 BB/9. That walk rate jumped to 4.5 BB/9 this year, the second-highest of his career.
Kimbrel also allowed a career-high seven home runs and his home run rate reached 1.0 HR/9 for the first time in his career.
The sliver lining to these results is that Kimbrel’s numbers are a bit inflated by poor performances in non-save situations. This follows a pattern we’ve seen throughout his career where he seems to struggle without the adrenaline rush of pitching with the game on the line. Kimbrel posted a spectacular 2.09 ERA, 0.82 WHIP, and 3.68 K/BB ratio in save situations. However, he was brutal in non-save situations, posting a 4.80 ERA, 1.53 WHIP, 2.17 K/BB ratio over 15 innings.
We also saw the closer struggle on the rare occasions he was brought in early during the 8th inning. Kimbrel allowed five runs (two earned) on three hits and three walks in the 3 1/3 innings he tallied in the 8th inning this season.
Put him in his comfort zone of the classic 9th inning save situations and Kimbrel as is good as they get. Any variance in his role risks a potential meltdown.
Kimbrel converted all six of his save opportunities during Boston’s World Series run but that’s not to say that he pitched well. He allowed 7 earned runs over 10 2/3 innings for an unsightly 5.91 ERA, allowing at least one run in five of his nine postseason appearances.
In Game 1 of the ALDS, Kimbrel allowed a home run to New York Yankees slugger Aaron Judge. He struck out the next three batters to ensure the Red Sox would escape with a 5-4 victory but the game became tighter than we would have liked. Kimbrel nearly blew Game 4 when he hit a batter with the bases loaded and allowed a sac fly that trimmed the lead to one. He managed to get out of that jam to finish the series but he was dangerously close to blowing that game, which would have forced a do-or-die Game 5.
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Kimbrel “earned” the save in Game 4 of the ALCS against the Houston Astros but really it was Andrew Benintendi who saved him. The closer walked three of the first five batters to load the bases and put the tying run in scoring position. Benny ended the threat with an amazing diving catch on a sinking line drive off the bat of Alex Bregman. If that ball falls in front of Benintendi, Houston scores at least one run. If the ball gets by him, the Astros would have taken the lead. A gutsy display of athleticism bailed out Kimbrel on a night he couldn’t find control of his pitches.
The last time we saw Kimbrel on the mound was in the 9th inning of Game 4 of the World Series. Tasked with protecting a comfortable five-run lead, Kimbrel immediately gave two back by walking the first batter and coughing up a home run to the next. It’s almost as if he needed it to be a three-run game in order to perform, as he settled down to close the door on the victory that put the Red Sox one win away from being champions. When the time came to finish off the Dodgers it was Chris Sale, not Kimbrel, striking out the side in the 9th inning of the decisive Game 5.
It was a down year by his typically lofty standards and the postseason results are a concern. Still, this is one of the top closers in the game. His numbers stack up well against most pitchers in this role. He may not have been the best closer in the league this year but he was deserving of his 7th career All-Star selection.
Kimbrel’s production is worthy of an A but he gets downgraded slightly for falling short of expectations and his poor postseason.
Looking ahead to 2019
One of the biggest questions facing the Red Sox this offseason is what to do with the closer role with Kimbrel hitting free agency. They should be counted among the favorites to sign him and the team has hinted there has been mutual interest. However, he won’t come cheap and investing a lucrative long-term deal in a 30-year old reliever seldom pans out well. A pitcher on a Hall of Fame path could prove to be the exception and the Red Sox have the financial freedom to take that type of risk but it’s still very much a risk.
If Kimbrel doesn’t stay in Boston, look for him to move back to the NL. The Phillies, Cardinals and Braves have all been mentioned as potential suitors. Boston would be left looking for cheaper alternatives on the free agent market or entrusting the closer role to Matt Barnes or Ryan Brasier.