Craig Kimbrel

Cubs closer Craig Kimbrel's unique pitching pose stemmed from an injury

Cubs closer Craig Kimbrel's unique pitching pose stemmed from an injury

Craig Kimbrel’s debut season with the Cubs didn’t go well. The closer on a Hall of Fame trajectory went 0-4 with a 6.53 ERA (8.00 FIP) and 1.597 WHIP in 2019, converting 13 of 16 save tries.

Kimbrel had an abnormal preseason last year and didn’t make his season debut until late June. 2020 is a clean slate for the right-hander, but Major League Baseball is looking at an unorthodox season due to the COVID-19 crisis.

Whenever the season starts, Kimbrel has the chance to start fresh and put last year’s struggles behind him. Until then, here’s a few things to know about him:

1. Kimbrel was born in Huntsville, Ala., and played quarterback as a junior and senior at Lee High School. Per a Q&A on his website, the school featured a run-oriented offense, and Kimbrel said he "wasn't really good." Alas.

2. Post-grad, Kimbrel attended Wallace State Community College in Hanceville, Ala. He went 8-0 with a 1.99 ERA as a freshman, leading to the Braves selecting him in the 33rd round of the 2007 draft.

Kimbrel returned to school and improved his draft stock, going 9-3 with a 2.88 ERA and 123 strikeouts in 81 innings as a sophomore. Atlanta drafted him again in 2008, this time in the third round.

3. Kimbrel’s pitching stance is notorious — he bends his torso parallel to the ground and dangles his arm at a 90-degree angle. But he doesn’t do it for kicks. It became too painful for him to hold his arm behind his back in 2010, when he suffered from biceps tendinitis.

Opposing fans have made fun of the stance, but hey, it’s unique.

4. During his time with the Red Sox (2017-18) Kimbrel and his teammates — including David Price, Chris Sale and Xander Bogaerts — became avid fans of “Fortnite,” the multiplayer-focused video game that took the world by storm two years ago.

“Let’s say we get back at 11 p.m. from a game, we’ll play until 1 a.m., 1:30 a.m., 2 a.m. depending on what time our game is the next day,” David Price told The Athletic in 2018. “But day games or off days, we can put some time in.”

Same, David. Same.

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Cubs 2020 roster outlook: Counting on bounce back season from Craig Kimbrel

Cubs 2020 roster outlook: Counting on bounce back season from Craig Kimbrel

Each day in March, NBC Sports Chicago is previewing one player from the Cubs’ expected 2020 Opening Day roster. Next up is closer Craig Kimbrel.

2019 recap

Quite simply, 2019 was the worst season of Kimbrel’s Hall of Fame worthy career, and by a long shot. Let’s start with the numbers:

In 23 appearances, Kimbrel went 0-4 while converting 13 of 16 save opportunities. He posted career highs in ERA (6.53), WHIP (1.60) and home runs allowed (9) — the latter coming in just 20 2/3 innings of work.

Now, some explanation. Kimbrel dealt with unusual circumstances leading to him joining the Cubs. He remained a free agent into June because compensation was attached to him from the Red Sox tending him a qualifying offer after the 2018 season.

Suitors hesitated to meet his asking price in the winter, and even after it went down, wanted to wait until the compensation period ended to sign him. The Cubs pounced with a three-year, $43 million deal, and Kimbrel joined the club on June 27 following a three-week, quasi-spring training in the minor leagues.

Professional athletes are extremely routine oriented, and Kimbrel was months behind schedule. Although he trained on his own while in free agency limbo, that — and his three weeks of preparation once signed — pale in comparison to a normal spring training. Despite all the success he’s enjoyed in his career, last season was very unorthodox.

The final numbers mask it, but Kimbrel got into a groove from early-July until hitting the injured list on Aug. 5 with right knee inflammation. He posted a 2.70 ERA with 14 strikeouts in 10 innings, walking six. He struggled upon returning, citing poor location and the injury throwing off his mechanics while speaking to reporters in Arizona last month.

Expectations for this season’s role

The Cubs signed Kimbrel to be their closer, and that’s exactly what he’ll be in 2020. The bullpen has four or five spots up for grabs right now, and the Cubs are counting on Kimbrel to be the leader of what will be a relatively inexperienced group.

If Kimbrel’s struggles persist, it’ll be interesting to see how manager David Ross handles the ninth inning. Other options include Jeremy Jeffress and Rowan Wick; the former has 44 career saves, including 27 in 2016 and 15 in 2018.

2020 outlook

With his track record, the Cubs are counting on Kimbrel bouncing back this season and 2019 being a fluke.

“I think it’s impossible to pinpoint how much of his struggles have been because of [his extended 2018-19 offseason], but from my perspective it’s the single biggest factor,” Epstein said of Kimbrel in September. “He’s never struggled like this before. He’s never even been close to having this type of performance before.”

Kimbrel has only one other season with an ERA above 2.75 on his résumé (2016 — 3.40). He’s been as good as any closer in baseball, and although relievers are extremely volatile, logic says last season was more of an anomaly.

That’s not to say there isn’t reason to be concerned. What happens if Kimbrel can’t bounce back? He’s guaranteed $32 million total the next two seasons, a hefty price for an ineffective reliever — especially for the budget-strapped Cubs.

Furthermore, his fastball velocity continued decreasing last season (96.2 mph, down from 97.1 in 2018 and 98.3 in 2017). The difference may seem minor, but for a two-pitch guy like Kimbrel, those extra ticks are integral to his success. There’s more room for error when you can throw a fastball past someone.

Kimbrel doesn’t have to be the 1.43 ERA guy he was in Boston in 2017. The Cubs need him to be much, much better than he was last season, however, and common sense says he will be.

The complete roster outlook series:

1. Cubs hoping Kris Bryant stabilizes leadoff spot in 2020
2. Kyle Hendricks is a steady force in the Cubs' rotation
3. Kyle Schwarber is primed for a breakout 2020 season
4. Tyler Chatwood has chance to rewrite the script in 2020
5. David Bote searching for more offensive consistency in 2020
6. One pitch could hold key to Jose Quintana's 2020 success
7. Albert Almora Jr. looking to rebound behind new swing, refreshed mental state

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Cubs questions entering camp: Can Craig Kimbrel bounce back in 2020?

Cubs questions entering camp: Can Craig Kimbrel bounce back in 2020?

NBC Sports Chicago is evaluating some of the most pressing Cubs questions entering spring training. Next up: Can closer Craig Kimbrel bounce back in 2020?

Signing closer Craig Kimbrel looked like a no-brainer for the Cubs last season.

Locked in a free agent impasse, Kimbrel remained available into June, when the draft and bonus pool penalties attached to him were lifted. Meanwhile — with Brandon Morrow and Pedro Strop on the mend — the Cubs bullpen suffered numerous early season meldowns.

Morrow and Strop being on the shelf isn't the sole reason the bullpen struggled. But when the Cubs gained financial flexibility from Ben Zobrist's unpaid personal leave of absence, adding Kimbrel (three years, $43 million) was the best solution. It's not often a healthy, elite closer remains unsigned into summertime.

Rather than fortify the bullpen, Kimbrel had his worst season as a big leaguer. In 23 appearances, the 31-year-old sported a 6.53 ERA, 1.60 WHIP and 12.5 percent walk rate. He surrendered a career-high nine home runs across just 20 2/3 innings — including three in a critical September series against the Cardinals that were difference makers.

Kimbrel felt ready to contribute last June, but he dealt with some unorthodox circumstances. Rather than working out any kinks in February, March and even April, he had three weeks to prepare in the minor leagues before the Cubs recalled him on June 27. He stayed in shape at home, but there’s a difference between throwing sim-games and pitching in high-leverage moments at Wrigley Field.

“We knew that given that he wouldn’t have a normal spring training, given that he was trying to do something that very few had ever done before, which was join the team midstream in a closer’s role, that there would be some risk,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said on 670 The Score in September. “We felt it was certainly a risk worth taking.

“I think it’s impossible to pinpoint how much of his struggles have been because of that, but from my perspective it’s the single biggest factor. He’s never struggled like this before. He’s never even been close to having this type of performance before.”

Kimbrel hit the 10-day injured list on separate occasions with right knee and right elbow inflammation. Injuries happen, but perhaps those nagging ailments wouldn’t have if he had a normal buildup to the season. This is obviously hard to forecast, however.

There’s reason for concern with Kimbrel. His fastball velocity averaged 96.2 mph last season, down from 97.1 (2018) and 98.3 (2017). You can make a mistake when throwing 98-100 mph, but not so much at 95-97 — especially for a two-pitch guy like Kimbrel. Opponents hit .326 against Kimbrel’s four-seamer last season; righties alone held a .289/.426/.763 slash line with five homers.

If Kimbrel doesn’t bounce back, the tight-budgeted Cubs will be paying an ineffective closer $16 million, money that could have been used elsewhere this winter. But there’s reason to believe Kimbrel’s 2019 woes were somewhat fluky and the result of his unusual offseason. The Cubs believe a normal buildup to the 2020 season will go a long way for their ninth inning man.

“He's really determined to have a great offseason and looking forward to a full and legitimate spring training," Epstein said in September. "He feels awful about the way this year went, recognized that he was in an unusual position, but I think you'll see a really determined individual who will benefit from the full spring training."

Cubs questions entering camp: Will Kris Bryant be with the club on Opening Day?

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