As Boston sports fans, we constantly demand perfection from our star athletes. It’s not a bad thing. In fact, by holding our stars to the highest standards we foster a culture of winning. Looking at the championship banners at Fenway, Gillette, and The Garden, I’d say it has worked pretty well over the past two decades.
Sometimes, though, our heightened expectations lead to unfair criticism of players. Some call it tough love, others call it accountability. But the fact of the matter is these athletes are human and fallible, and we seem to forget that sometimes. Accountability wins championships, negativity does not.
No one has experienced the wrath of trophy-hungry Boston fans like Craig Kimbrel in the past few weeks, and for good reason.
The Red Sox closer has always been known as one of the most dominant relievers in the game. His fastball sits in the upper 90’s, and his average perceived velocity (PV) is the highest in the MLB (according to Baseball Savant). When hitters think they have Kimbrel timed up, the ball seemingly rises above their bats. He also has a high-80’s knuckle curve in his arsenal that bites like a whiffle ball. It’s not fair, when you think about it.
And yet, Kimbrel has forced Red Sox nation to hold its breath when he has entered the game this postseason. In 6.1 innings pitched, Kimbrel has issued 6 walks. Not ideal for a closer who strictly comes into tight situations. And even though Kimbrel has converted all 5 of his save opportunities this postseason, his appearances have been shaky at best. Red Sox nation can’t help but worry.
It’s no secret that Kimbrel has looked like a shell of his 2017 self this season. His ERA is up 1.31 points from last year’s number, his walks are up from 14 to 31, and his strikeouts are down from 126 to 96. In addition, his FIP (3.13) is the highest of his 9-year career.
But deep down he’s still Craig Kimbrel, and when the Red Sox needed him most, he showed up.
Last night, Kimbrel reminded us why he is the most feared closer in the major leagues. He reminded us why the opposing team might as well start packing up when they see that majestic, red beard take the mound. In Game 1 of the World Series, Kimbrel came in and slammed the door on the Dodgers like they showed up at an exclusive club with fake IDs.
Showcasing his elite pitch arsenal, Kimbrel forced a groundout from Joc Pederson and struck out back-to-back batters to end the game. His fastball was up to 98 mph and even had a little arm side run, which isn’t typical of Kimbrel’s fastball. His knuckle curve was as devastating as ever, too. What made Craig look like his old self, though, was that he was throwing both pitches with pinpoint accuracy. Watch this pitch sequence to Max Muncy.
Craig Kimbrel, Absolutely Disgusting 3 Pitch K (98mph Fastball & two unhittable 88mph knuckle curves). 🤮 pic.twitter.com/bhR31Cnajt
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) October 24, 2018
The thing that makes major league pitchers really, really good is their ability to make two different pitches appear the same out of the hand. If you go back and watch those three pitches, you’ll see that both breaking balls leave the hand and follow the same path as the first pitch of the at-bat: a middle-middle fastball. When you’re geared up for 98, good luck trying to make an adjustment when the ball begins to break halfway to the plate.
Finally, I want to say that this improvement has nothing to do with Kimbrel’s pitch-tipping (or lack thereof). This was a clear mechanical adjustment that allowed him to hit his spots. When he’s locating his fastball and dropping in back foot breaking balls like he did to Muncy, fuggedaboutit. That’s the Craig Kimbrel we’ve come to know, and hopefully, that’s the Craig Kimbrel we’ll be seeing for the remainder of the Fall Classic.
Photo: Over The Monster