Craig Kimbrel is still terrific, but there are some warning signs. Just how concerning are they?

USA Today

Craig Kimbrel is still terrific, but there are some warning signs. Just how concerning are they?

On June 5th, the Cubs finally pulled the trigger on their big offseason move. 

Craig Kimbrel is coming to Wrigley. He will “reportedly” will sign a 3-year, $43 million contract with the team and hopes to be ready by mid-to-late June. 

It’s obviously a big deal for the Cubs. On the field, they desperately needed help in the back end of the bullpen and Kimbrel’s track record speaks for itself. Off of it, Epstein and Co. no longer have to dodge budgetary-constraint conversations, having now provided Cubs fans with exactly the type of player they spent all offseason clamoring for. 

For all of the excitement that the signing justifiably brings, there are concerns, and it’d be naive not to mention them. Kimbrel comes with his warts, a few of which should make Cubs’ fans nervous; he is, after all, 31 years old with 532.2 innings of wear on his arm. 

Control is Kimbrel’s Achilles Heel. Only twice in his eight-year career has he had a below-average walk-rate (‘12 and ‘17). Here’s where he’s ranked, among qualified relievers, in BB% during every season he’s pitched:

‘10:136th (9.8%)
‘11: 36th (10.5%) 
‘12: 112th (6.1%)
‘13: 79th (7.8%) 
‘14: 25th (10.7%)
‘15: 40th (9.2%)
‘16: 3rd (13.6%)
‘17: 140th (5.5%)
‘18: 15th (16.6%) 

It’s admittedly a messy list, and maybe Kimbrel can recapture some of whatever it was that worked in 2010, 2012, or 2017. Even with the outlying years, his control has been getting spottier and spottier over time: 

In his defense, he’s consistently been among the top-10 of qualified relievers in K% over his career. Such is the life of a strikeout pitcher. Still, Cubs fans will soon experience what Braves, Padres, and Red Sox fans have learned: Kimbrel throws a LOT of pitches. He averaged almost 18 pitches per inning last season, and only pitched in multiple innings three times. 

It’s obviously not a deal-breaker, but adding Kimbrel to a bullpen that has the second-highest walk rate in baseball is going to cause issues. The current MLB average for bullpen walk rate is 12.1%. As it stands today, Kimbrel, Brad Brach, and Tyler Chatwood all come in above that. Pedro Strop and Carl Edwards Jr. come in less than a percentage point lower. That’s a lot of walks from a lot of important roles within the ‘pen’s structure.  

Some of Kimbrel’s recent batted ball numbers are a bit worrisome too. He’s always been hit hard -- when batters square up 100mph, they REALLY square up -- but 2018 saw some of the hardest contact he’s ever allowed. Kimbrel was only in the 22nd percentile of pitchers when it came to exit velocity, and his 9.3% barrel rate was among the worst in the league. What’s more, his launch angle last year was over double the league average and he allowed more than 1.0 HR/9 for the first time ever. Minus his narrative-busting 2017 season campaign, the contact has gotten worse and worse: 

Since the Cubs are bringing him in to get them there, it’s worth talking about Kimbrel’s performance in the postseason. The numbers: 20.2 IPs, 3.92 ERA, 1.258 WHIP, and 7 saves in 19 games. Not terrible, but not Kimbrelesque either. Remember that it was Chris Sale, not Kimbrel, who came into the game with three outs to go in last year’s World Series clincher. Postseason results --especially for relief pitchers-- can be arbitrary, and no one has playoff success until they do. But there’s no denying that the numbers do look different, and not in a good way. 

Generally speaking, this is all nitpicking. Kimbrel is still really good, and the moment he steps into the Cubs’ bullpen, he immediately becomes their best relief option. He has a *career* strikeout rate above 40%, which is objectively absurd. Batters have a lifetime average below .200 against him. His exaggerated stretch is a fan favorite, as is his ‘Dirty Craig’ nickname. Wrigley Field may be a nervous wreck at times this summer, but considering they blew 7 saves last month, that’s not a particularly new phenomenon. It’s a smart move for the Cubs, and a nice deal for Kimbrel. 

Kyle Ryan's emergence is coming at exactly the right time for Cubs


Kyle Ryan's emergence is coming at exactly the right time for Cubs

With the MLB trade deadline two weeks away, bullpen help figures to be on the Cubs' wish list.

But thanks in part to Kyle Ryan's emergence, the Cubs don't absolutely need that reliever to be left-handed (though it would probably be ideal).

The Cubs began the week with three southpaws in their bullpen, but at some point this weekend, Ryan may be the lone lefty remaining. Mike Montgomery was traded to the Royals late Monday night and with Carl Edwards Jr. progressing in his rehab (he threw again Tuesday), he might take Randy Rosario's spot in a couple days. 

The Cubs like Edwards against lefties and they also feel confident in Pedro Strop against either handed hitter when he's on. But Ryan has worked his way into Joe Maddon's Circle of Trust and is currently the only lefty residing there.

That's not to say the Cubs don't need another reliable southpaw in the 'pen, but Ryan looks like he's going to get some big outs for this team down the stretch.

"He's done a great job for us since he's been here," Jon Lester said of Ryan last month. "I don't think he gets enough credit for what he's been able to do."

Ryan impressed the Cubs with his work as a multi-inning reliever in Triple-A last season and turned heads again in camp this spring. Still, Rosario made the Opening Day roster over him, though Ryan got called up on the team's season-opening road trip and made his first appearance on April 6.

Since then, he's been a mainstay while Montgomery battled injury and ineffectiveness, Rosario and Tim Collins have bounced between Triple-A Iowa and Chicago and veteran Xavier Cedeno's time off the injured list was short-lived.

Ryan looked to be finding his way throughout his first month in the bullpen, but after his infamous "freeze" moment against the Marlins, he endured some struggles (7 runs allowed on 12 hits in 7 innings from May 8 through June 1).

He's righted the ship since then, permitting only 1 run over his last 17 appearances (14 innings) and lowering his season ERA to 3.21 to go along with a 1.31 WHIP and 33 strikeouts in 33.2 innings.

A big part of that recent success can be tied to Ryan's increased improvement against left-handed hitters. 

Lefties hit .344 with a .405 on-base percentage off Ryan through June 5. But since then, Ryan has surrendered only 3 hits — all singles — and zero walks to the 19 left-handed hitters he's faced (.158 AVG).

He credits part of that turnaround to working on a changeup, which he thinks has helped lock in the "feel" of all his other pitches as well as his mechanics. 

As he works to add a new pitch to his repertoire, Ryan has leaned on Cubs bullpen coach Lester Strode and pitching coach Tommy Hottovy for assistance, while also picking the brains of veterans like Cole Hamels, Kyle Hendricks and Brad Brach who have all thrown changeups for quite a while.

But even with all that work, he still hasn't resorted to using the changeup much in games. The pitch is so foreign that it's still being picked up as a sinker, including on the Wrigley Field video board Sunday when he threw one in his inning of work.

"Eventually, I'm gonna find the changeup and it's gonna be a comfortable, confident pitch," Ryan said. "But I do think it's gotten me behind all the rest of my pitches and it's maybe a little bit better feel for everything. It's gonna stay where it is for a while. I'm gonna keep trying."

Ryan said one of the things he likes about the changeup is that it can eventually be a nice weapon because it "goes in the opposite direction" of all his other pitches.

We'll see if the new pitch can ever become a factor for the 27-year-old. But if it's helped lock in his other pitches, that's great news for the Cubs, especially as they look to fortify their bullpen this month.

Cubs Talk Podcast: The Yu Darvish 1st Wrigley win and post-ASG hot start podcast


Cubs Talk Podcast: The Yu Darvish 1st Wrigley win and post-ASG hot start podcast

On the latest Cubs Talk Podcast, Kelly Crull and Tony Andracki discuss Yu Darvish's 1st win at Wrigley, Cole Hamel's status, and Kris Bryant playing better than he did in his MVP season.

01:00     Darvish picking up 1st win at Wrigley

03:30     Cole Hamels injury update

05:00     Starting rotation after the All-Star break

06:00     Cubs defense looking sharp

07:30     How the Cubs will approach the weekend and the expected heat

09:30     Kris Bryant playing above his MVP level

12:00     How the NL Central stacks up

14:00     Upcoming road trip to San Francisco, Milwaukee and Saint Louis

16:00     Addition to Martin Maldonado

Listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player below:

Cubs Talk Podcast


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