After putting together one of the best single seasons in relief pitcher history last season, Craig Kimbrel has ran into a rough patch in the early portions of this year, with many asking if anything is “wrong” with the flame thrower. With three blown saves and a 3.38 ERA compared to his career mark of 1.61, the first glance would point to there being some type of issue. However, when you realize he has thrown just 13.1 innings it becomes less evident. We all know how weighing early season small samples can distort analysis, and that is especially true with relief pitchers.
In looking at the peripherals, it is clear that luck has been a big part of Kimbrel’s season so far. He has a 25% home run per fly ball rate after a 9.7 and 5.3 in the two previous seasons. That is obviously not Kimbrel-esque and will drop at a rapid rate over the course of the year. The main reason to be so confident in that is that his velocity is still pretty much in line with his career norms. With that said, when I say pretty much in line there is a slight drop. It is hard to put his home run per fly ball rate bumping up and his BABIP similarly jumping to .320 all on under a mile per hour drop in velocity. Could it be a factor? Yes. Is it the factor? Probably not.
One of the issues I have noticed is a lack of reliance on his breaking ball. While Kimbrel is known for his dynamite fastball, his breaking ball is actually probably a higher quality pitch. It is essentially a curveball in terms of its movement but with slider velocity. His usage of the pitch has dropped about 10%, from 33% to 23%, a significant drop. Fastballs are generally more hittable than breaking balls, and his issues have really come with his fastball. Perhaps there is a lack of faith in his breaking ball at this point in time, which could have longer lasting effects than simply throwing it less frequently over 13 innings.
Even though he has had a rough season so far and specifically a rough week, he has built enough rapport with fantasy owners to be essentially just as valuable now as he was early in the season. There is no reason to pick up a handcuff and no reason to try and move Kimbrel now. If you drafted him, you probably drafted him early. Paying a lot for closers is never something I recommend, as the position itself is very volatile and there are other needs that early in drafts than grabbing the first closer. If you see someone in your league starting to sour on Kimbrel, make a low offer and see if he counters with something reasonable. You may not get many chances to “buy low” on him, so if you sense any serious worry by his owner now is the time to make a move.
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