While many focus on the scarcity of stolen bases, saves continue to trend down as well. In fact, with more teams transitioning to high leverage by committee, the old adage of targeting skills over role comes with some trepidation. It's a slippery slope in the current landscape of fantasy baseball.

As if this does not represent enough to consider, former top tier closer Craig Kimbrel sits on the precipice of how his career may proceed. He struggled with command during the shortened 2020 season leading him to cede his role as closer giving way to both Rowan Wick and Jeremy Jeffress in the ninth inning due to performance, not injury. Kimbrel finished last year with a 6.53 ERA, 3.57 SIERA and 1.43 WHIP over 18 games and 15.1 innings. He closed out two saves while recording three holds and one blown save in his high leverage exposure.

However, Chicago paid Kimbrel to stabilize their bullpen. A delayed start to his season in 2019 probably affected his performance, missing spring training while teams awaited the draft pick associated with signing him to lapse. After allocating resources to land Brandon Morrow to close, injuries derailed his time with the Cubs. Signs of decline accompanied Kimbrel to Chicago but even a less effective Kimbrel marked an improvement over Morrow, right?

As a Cub, Kimbrel's winless in five decisions with 15 saves in 41 games finishing 28 of them. His 36 innings yields a 58:24 K:BB, 35.2 strikeout percentage and 14.5 walk rate. Kimbrel's ratio statistics prove less than optimal as well evidenced by his 6.00 ERA and 1.528 WHIP. His recent decline comes with a three year slide in swinging strike percentage (SwStr%):

  • 19.8 SwStr% in 2017
  • 17.2 Swstr% in 2018
  • 14.8 SwStr% in 2019
  • 12.9 SwStr% in 2020

Taking the small sample size of his results with the Cubs with a grain of salt, Kimbrel's strong finish to 2020 provides a glimmer of hope. Working hard with his pitching coach to rework his mechanics, Kimbrel notched 7.1 scoreless innings in September with 13 strikeouts while not issuing a walk. He recorded a 54.2 strikeout percentage in this sample with a 0.41 WHIP. It also occurred after his velocity rebounded:

His last outing of the regular season marked his velocity peak of 2020 averaging 98.6 MPH with his four-seam fastball. In fact, Kimbrel owned a 1.42 ERA his last 14 outings last year with a 53.1 strikeout rate and .342 on-base plus slugging percentage allowed.

Digging deeper into his numbers from 2020, Kimbrel turned in the lowest swinging strike percentage and O-Swing (outside the strike zone) 24.6 percent of his career. He yielded a 65.5 contact percent and a 72.9 Z-Contact (in the strike zone). Of more concern, the 51.9 hard hit rate according to Statcast with a rising walk rate and decreasing strikeout percent. Which numbers can be trusted in regards to Kimbrel, the overall performance or does his strong finish represent him turning the corner?

Delving into his performance by pitch, Kimbrel features a fastball and curve. Here's his swinging strikes from last season along with the usage percentages of each offering:

Kimbrel's fastball produced a .216 expected batting average (xBA), a 30.5 whiff percentage and 23.7 put away percent. His curve generated a .162 xBA with a 48.4 whiff percentage and 35 put away percent. While the fastball could flatten out at times leading to the hard hit spike, the curve's put away percent represents his best total since 2015 with the pitch.

Any chance of a bounce back by Kimbrel lies in his velocity and willingness to attack hitters earlier in counts. Taking his results to a larger sample, Kimbrel's numbers from the second half of 2019 to the end of last year still provides some doubts:

  • Kimbrel 2H 2019-through-2020: 0-4, 13 saves, 37 games, 32.1 IP, 52:21 K:BB, 5.29 ERA, 3.63 SIERA, 1.45 WHIP, 36.1 K%, 14.6 BB%, 13.8 SwStr%

When using his last three years, Kimbrel's outlook takes a turn to the positive fueled by his 2018 campaign:

  • Kimbrel's Last 3 Years: 5-6, 57 Saves, 106 games, 100.1 IP, 158:55 K:BB, 3.95 ERA, 3.05 SIERA, 1.20 WHIP, 37.6 K%, 13.1 BB%, 16 SwStr%

No matter how anyone feels about how Kimbrel may do in 2021, if he does not improve his walk percentage, it's a moot point. Taking into account Kimbrel worked in his mechanics, Brooks Baseball provides a chart displaying vertical release points for pitchers. Here's Kimbrel's from the last three seasons:

While most pitchers benefit from a similar release point to tunnel their pitches, Kimbrel made strides at the end of 2020 in this regard. It's also possible he did not start the season fully healthy seeing where his fastball release point started. Since his success can be tied to the walk rate along with velocity, Fangraphs rolling chart from this same time frame puts a different spin to his recent results. This chart uses walk rate, strikeout percent, ERA- (100 league average) so the lower the better and swinging strike percentage:

Note how much his ERA- decreased once Kimbrel reduced his walks at the end of last season. Like almost any relief pitcher, Kimbrel typifies a risky venture in upcoming drafts. Before exploring his projection sets, one last dive into his results by pitch using the raw whiff counts on Brooks Baseball to discern between the swinging strike rates in his two pitches:

  • Swinging strike percentage with 4-seam fastball - 14.2% in 2020, 12% in 2019, 16% in 2018
  • Swinging strike percentage with Curve - 13.9% in 2020, 21.4% in 2019, 20% in 2018

Kimbrel needs his swinging strike rate with the curve to return to previous levels to make the most of his 2021 season. With this in mind, here's how two different sites foresee him:

  • Kimbrel 2021 Steamer projection: 3-3, 32 saves, 63 IP, 89:30 K:BB, 3.58 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 33.4 K%, 11.3 BB%
  • Kimbrel 2021 ZiPS projection: 3-2, 41.2 IP, 59:21 K:BB, 3.67 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 33.3 K%, 11.9 BB%

ZiPS does not include saves in its projections so do not be disappointed by the result. Before taking Kimbrel in upcoming drafts or spending up in an auction, soak in all the facts within his data above. His stock could climb if he's throwing with increased velocity (think 97 MPH or better with the fastball). Kimbrel makes an intriguing upside play but would prefer him as a second closer on a team with top-10 upside. Migration to the mean of SIERA (an ERA predictor) would greatly improve his chances.

Parting shot, Chicago could continue to sell off any overpriced asset as the year progresses. So if taking Kimbrel, own a backup plan if he's traded by midseason. There's a vesting option in his contract he's unlikely to reach, but if he finishes more than 53 games, his million dollar buyout increases:

There's a path for Kimbrel to reclaim a massive return compared to his present price point in average draft position if he carries over the gains displayed over his last 14 appearances last year. But layers exist for him to be the top tier closer many think he could be. Heed the velocity, swinging strike rates and walk percentages when putting Kimbrel on the roster. His value remains tied to his fastball velocity returning to previous levels and getting more swinging strikes with his curve. Act accordingly.

Statistical Credits:






ZiPS courtesy of Dan Szymborksi