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:
‘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.