Look, there’s no reason to sugar-coat this: Craig Kimbrel was a big disappointment this season. You can justify his performance however you like, but the fact of the matter is that one of the game’s all-time great closers was part of the reason the Cubs fell off a cliff down the stretch. Kimbrel’s inability to keep the ball in the yard cost his team games and weakened the shaky bullpen his mid-season addition was supposed to solidify.
Some believe that Dirty Craig is washed up and will be equally as unreliable over the next two years of his contract. Or, and this seems like at least as good a possibility, having an adequate preseason ramp-up period to get in shape could have him back to that familiar elite form. Keep in mind that Kimbrel was pitching to high school kids and plywood cut-outs prior to being signed by the Cubs.
More than just the physical aspects of his game, however, Kimbrel is looking to improve his performance with the help of the mad scientists in the Pitch Lab.
“Being around these guys for a couple months now, and having a whole camp next year, I’m going to help these guys out in any way I can, and obviously learn from them,” Kimbrel told the media at the end of the season. “You can never stop learning.”
Much was made about the closer teaching his knuckle curve to Yu Darvish, who parlayed it into a big second half highlighted by incredible strikeout numbers. At the same time, Kimbrel saw what was happening with some of the younger pitchers who’d used data to their advantage as they became legitimate high-leverage options for the Cubs down the stretch.
Rowan Wick is a converted catcher who’s only been pitching for a few years, but he integrated a knuckle curve because the delivery is more similar to his four-seam. Brad Wieck likewise changed his breaking-ball grip after coming over in a trade from the Padres. Kyle Ryan was posting pedestrian numbers until a small shift on the rubber unlocked the magic of his funky release point.
Because Kimbrel already has the stuff and experience, his work may be more about getting into the numbers to determine patterns and exploit tendencies. That may be what he sees in hitters, but is more likely about changing some of his own habits.
“There are things that I’ve learned that has integrated itself into the game over the last three, four, five years,” Kimbrel explained. “I think I’m going to dig into it a little bit more, look at the numbers a little bit more, pay attention to that a little bit more, just better verse myself in this game and try to get better.
Sequencing and location may explain why Cardinals batters were ready to pounce on Kimbrel’s high heat down the stretch, so he’ll need to dial that in. Maybe he can even mess with his grips a little, provided that’s a habit he’s willing to tweak, in an effort to generate different types of movement and throw off the book scouts have on him.
Kimbrel also needs to keep in mind that batters aren’t the only opponents he’s battling. Father Time is unkind to pitchers who rely on elite velocity to get their outs, but he can be outsmarted by those who are willing to adapt to their changing physical limitations. So while doubling up on squats will give you a thiccy-thicc backside, that’s not enough to stave off the creep of velo erosion. Which is where the Lab comes in.
Working with his fellow pitchers and, at least presumably, a revamped pitching infrastructure led by a new coordinator and additional tools, Kimbrel may be able to alter his approach for better results. Wait, let’s firm that up: Kimbrel needs to work with the members of the Cubs’ revamped pitching infrastructure to alter his approach for better results. Probably should have just written it that way in the first place.
If all goes according to plan, Kimbrel’s bubble butt will serve only as a target for compliments and not for the feet of opposing hitters.