Bernstein: The Craig Kimbrel Thing Isn't Working

Kimbrel can't be trusted to close games for the Cubs right now.

Dan Bernstein
July 28, 2020 - 1:44 pm
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(670 The Score)​ ​​We can't live like this. I take no pleasure in being this guy, but I have no choice due to the combination of a condensed MLB season and enough evidence right in front of us.

Craig Kimbrel can't be trusted to close games for the Cubs right now. He has been awful since he was signed with great fanfare to a three-year, $43-million contract in June 2019, and nothing in the data or the eye test suggests that a bet on improvement is a smart idea.

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The numbers indicate not just a drop from his peak but a complete meltdown to utter ineffectiveness.

Kimbrel's latest implosion alone was historic. As recognized by stat maven Mike Garrigan, Kimbrel on Monday night became one of only three pitchers in MLB history to record one out or fewer while surrendering four or more walks and at least one wild pitch and a hit batsman. The others? Pittsburgh's Vern Law in 1951 and Harry Eells of the 1906 Cleveland Naps. Kimbrel threw 34 pitches, only 13 for strikes. Of his 15 curveballs, not one induced a swing from the Reds -- a sign that hitters recognized what it was the moment it left his hand.

Cubs manager David Ross is attributing Kimbrel's struggles to rust, but it looks too much like it did in spring and summer camp exhibitions and the disaster last summer for which too many excuses have already been made.

Kimbrel was worth -1.1 wins in 2019 despite pitching only 20 2/3 innings. In those, he posted a 6.53 ERA, an 8.00 FIP and a HR/FB rate of 36%. His 50% hard contact rate allowed was the fifth-worst in MLB among all pitchers with a minimum of 20 innings, and his soft contact rate allowed of 7.7% ranked an astonishing 544th out of those 545.

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His fastball fell off a cliff after peaking in 2017, dropping a full two miles per hour to a relatively pedestrian 96. He has been in the Cubs' pitch lab working on ways to maximize what he has left, but the first rollout tells us there may not be much. The Red Sox saw this in 2018, when his strikeouts and soft contact rate dropped while his walks and hard contact rate jumped. The rest of the league may have noticed as well, but the Cubs wrote a big and desperate check to validate what they thought had the makings of a contender. If they feel the same about this team, they may have to acknowledge what's now a sunk cost and write it off.

Ross was instrumental in the Cubs' signing of Kimbrel, filing a positive scouting report to the front office after watching a workout in person. Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said on the day that Kimbrel's signing was announced that Ross "reported that Craig looked like he was just about in midseason form. Everything was working great.  Ball was coming out really well." 

This is a big early test for Ross, then, reconciling these results with what looks like a bad recommendation and doing what's right for the organization rather than hoping for what at best would be a dead-cat bounce.

This isn't about a lack of spring training like in 2019 or this recent accelerated ramp-up to game play. It's about a pitcher who's now getting pummeled because he has lost both velocity and command, and it's up to the Cubs how long they want to act assured that he's going to get both back.

Dan Bernstein is the host of the Dan Bernstein Show on middays from 9 a.m. until noon on 670 The Score. You can follow him on Twitter @Dan_Bernstein.