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Newsletter Preview: "Craig Kimbrel"

This is a preview of the Joe Sheehan Baseball Newsletter, an e-mail newsletter about all things baseball, featuring analysis and opinion about the game on and off the field from the perspective of the informed outsider. Joe Sheehan is a founding member of Baseball Prospectus and a contributor to Sports Illustrated and Baseball America. He has been writing about baseball for nearly 25 years.

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The Joe Sheehan Newsletter
Vol. 11, No. 40
June 7, 2019

For the fourth time in a bit less than three years, the Cubs have invested talent or treasure in a one-inning save specialist. In the wake of Aroldis Chapman, Wade Davis, and Brandon Morrow now comes Craig Kimbrel, one of the best one-inning relievers of all time, to pitch the ninth inning and help Joe Maddon better construct his closercentric pen full of three-out guys.

Kimbrel, a free agent in June for reasons well covered, signed a three-year, $43-million contract with the Cubs. Accounting for the missing ten weeks or so, the contract is nearly identical to the three-year, $52-million contract Davis signed with the Rockies preceding the 2018 season. Davis is, in fact, an excellent comp for Kimbrel as a free agent, as a focus on their walk year shows.


          ERA   FIP    IP   SV     K%   K-BB%
Davis    2.30  3.38  58.2   32  32.6%   21.1%
Kimbrel  2.74  3.13  62.1   42  38.9%   26.3%

Kimbrel was a little better across the board, although both pitchers struggled with their command, and neither looked great in their respective postseasons.

If we drag prior seasons into this, it’s not going to help Kimbrel, as Davis posted one of the best three-year stretches, dating to 2014, of any reliever ever. In talking about Kimbrel online, I’ve had a lot of people throw his career numbers at me, his 1.91 career ERA and 333 saves. Those figures are interesting in building a Hall of Fame case, but that Craig Kimbrel was a dominant reliever in 2014 does very little, really nothing, to inform the decision about whether you want him pitching for you in 2019. As I’ve said over and over, you don’t get to sign Kimbrel’s 2013 Strat card, and you don’t get to put his Baseball Reference page on the mound.

This point is brought into relief when you consider where the pitchers closest to Kimbrel, as peers, have gone at a similar age. Kimbrel has already been an exception to the rule that these power relievers burn fast and hot. By signing him at 31, the Cubs are taking on not just financial risk, which they can afford, but performance risk, which they cannot. Through age 30, Kimbrel is the most dominant relief pitcher ever. That guarantees nothing. Here’s what the pitchers closest to him in career performance did at 31.

The Present (age-31 season, for best RPs ever (ERA+) through age 30)

              IP     ERA     FIP
Papelbon      70    2.44    2.90
Chapman     24.2    1.46    1.89
Rivera      80.2    2.34    2.28
Betances             DNP
Jansen      25.2    3.16    3.15
Harvey      10.1    5.23    3.61
Holland     57.1    3.61    3.72

Both Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen are 31 this year, so those are 2019 stats listed. Betances is also 31 and has yet to pitch. Bryan Harvey’s career basically ended at 31. Holland was coming off missing his age-30 season.

Jonathan Papelbon is probably the comp you’re looking most closely at if you’re a Cubs fan. By ERA+, he’s the second-best reliever ever to Kimbrel through age 30. Boston’s closer was converted from starting in 2005 and made his MLB debut that same season. He would go on to close out a World Series and make four All-Star teams before leaving the Red Sox -- this sounds familiar -- at 30 years old. Signing with the Phillies, Papelbon had a 2.36 ERA over the life of his four-year contract, and even his final season, at 35, wasn’t bad: a 4.37 ERA and a 3.69 FIP.

Kimbrel throws harder than Papelbon did, and his secondary is a curveball, as opposed to Papelbon’s slider and splitter. Papelbon hit the market off a better season, and at no time showed the kind of problems throwing strikes that Kimbrel has in recent seasons, save for 2017. Kimbrel had a higher peak and, even in his down seasons, was more dominant with much higher strikeout rates, even relative to the league. I’ve been looking at Kimbrel through the lens of Davis, largely due to that spike in walk rate, but the arc of Papelbon’s career makes me a little more optimistic that Kimbrel can at least sustain his recent performance rather than decline.

Comps aside, Kimbrel does appear to be losing something. In the first four full seasons of his career, he had a 1.51 ERA and a 1.52 FIP, striking out 42% of the batters he faced and walking 8.6%. At the end of that stretch the Braves traded him to the Padres, who then sent him on to Boston. Over those four years, he had a 2.47 ERA and a 2.49 FIP, with a 41% strikeout rate and a 10% walk rate. It’s that last figure that drives my pessimism.

Ball Four. Ball Eight. Ball Twelve.

2015     8.9%
2016    13.6%
2017     5.5%
2018    12.6%

Last year, Kimbrel lost a full tick off of his four-seam fastball, from 98.6 mph in 2017 to 97.5 mph in 2018. That’s the slowest average fastball he’s had since 2011, and the least effective fastball of his career. Kimbrel threw the fewest pitches in the strike zone he had in his career (43%), and when he threw balls in the zone, batters made contact at well above his career averages (77% last year). When you look at his breaking-ball command in the four years above, you see that 2017 really stands out.

“Curve, Low and Away, Count Goes to 2-1...”

        CB K%
2015    55.5%
2016    58.4%
2017    66.5%
2018    58.4%

So I look at Kimbrel and see a reliever who is losing a little fastball velocity and a little breaking-ball command. He’s throwing fewer strikes and the ones he throws are a bit more hittable. Kimbrel started at such a high level that he’s been able to maintain a reasonable level of effectiveness, but the arrows aren’t pointing in the right direction. I said often this winter that while the focus, with respect to Kimbrel, was on the free-agent market and its issues, there were also perfectly good baseball reasons to avoid signing him for the costs involved. I’ll stand by that today.

Whether the Cubs needed to do this is another question. Their bullpen ERA of 4.14 is fifth in the National League, and their bullpen FIP of 4.34 is seventh. They’re allowing fewer runs in the seventh and eighth innings than the league is, and as many as the league does in the ninth. The absence of Brandon Morrow and the need to rebuild Carl Edwards Jr. created some depth issues over the first two months. This may just be a reaction to a handful of frustrating moments: The Cubs have lost three games in which they led at the start of the ninth inning; all other NL teams have 11 losses, total, in that spot. Overall, though, the bullpen hasn’t been a barrier to success.

Record When Leading or Tied Starting the Inning

      Cubs     NL

7th   .829   .779
8th   .842   .844
9th   .846   .872

The Cubs are 3-3 in extra-inning games, 11-10 in one-run games, just to look at a few more places where the bullpen could have been dragging them down.

The Cubs may be a bit better today, because Kimbrel is surely better than whoever he displaces in the bullpen, probably Brad Brach. Over maybe 40 innings, though, this isn’t a high-impact signing, and it comes with more downside risk than upside.


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