The Unhittable Kimbrel
The story of how Craig Kimbrel discovered the velocity inside is a classic — it apparently began when he broke his foot on a construction job. Kimbrel, at the time, was just another guy, a pitcher throwing in the mid-80s for Wallace State Community College in Hanceville, Alabama.
After he broke his foot, though, he began to work out his arm in a whole other way, throwing from his knees. He wasn’t exactly TRYING to reinvent himself. But he did anyway. When the cast came off, he was throwing in the 90s. That moved up to the mid 90s. The Braves drafted him in the 33rd round of the 2007 draft. Kimbrel went back to school and threw even harder, pushing that fastball up into the high 90s.
The Braves came back and drafted him in the third round this time.
In his first year in the minor leagues, he struck out 56 batters in 35 innings. The Braves, baffled by what they had, moved him up three different times the next season. He struck out 103 in 60 innings.
In his rookie season in the big leagues, Kimbrel pitched 20 innings. He struck out 40. This was insane stuff. And it stayed insane.
Nobody in baseball history has struck out more batters per nine innings than Kimbrel (14.6). He used to do this with his absurd fastball, which seems even faster than it is because of his deceiving delivery, and a pretty darrned good slider. It didn’t seem fair. Starting in 2013, he traded the slider in for a knuckle curve that, frankly, isn’t fair.
And now Craig Kimbrel, at age 29 and after a couple of only so-so seasons by his standards, is ridiculous all over again.
I want to talk about Kimbrel’s performance against Milwaukee on Thursday, but first a couple of stats. Right-handed batters do not have a hit off him all year. They are 0-for-28 with 16 strikeouts.
His last 11 outs are all by strikeout. That covers his last four appearances and during that time, he has allowed one hit — an infield single that bounced off his leg. I think he was just surprised that someone made contact.
On April 20, given a 1–0 lead entering the ninth, Kimbrel gave up a home run to Kendrys Morales to tie the game. The homer blew the victory for Chris Sale, who had been amazing, and Kimbrel felt terrible about it. Since that home run, Kimbrel has pitched 8 2/3 innings — so almost a full game. He has allowed two hits. He has struck out 19.
That’s the background for Thursday’s absurd performance. Kimbrel came into the game with the scored tied 1–1 and a man on first. He struck out Eric Thames (of course) and then gave up the aforementioned infield single to Jonathan Villar.
Up came Keon Broxton. And now we go pitch by pitch.
Pitch 1: Kimbrel threw a crazy knuckle cover that caught the outside corner for strike 1.
Pitch 2: Kimbrel threw an even crazier knuckle curve that somehow both (1) bounced five feet in front of the plate and (2) looked enough like a strike that Broxton swung at it.
“Do that again,” the Boston announcers implored.
Pitch 3: Nah. Kimbrel decided instead to throw a 99 mph fastball up and away. Broxton never had a chance.
That ended the eighth inning. The Red Sox scored three in the ninth — Mookie Betts with the three run homer — so it was Kimbrel’s game to win in the ninth. The first batter he faced was Henan Perez.
Pitch 1: A 97 mph fastball that was probably outside, but catcher Christian Vazquez did a good job framing it, and home plate umpire Ben May called it a strike. It really isn’t fair to give Kimbrel undeserved strikes.
Pitch 2: Kimbrel threw that crazy knuckle curve into the dirt again, and again it so resembled a strike that Perez swung right over it.
Pitch 3: Why not, another knuckle curve, this one looking more like a slider that swept away from Perez. He swung and missed. “Can’t hit that,” the Red Sox announcers correctly say.
Up came Travis Shaw … at least he’s a left-handed hitter. So at least he might have a chance.
Pitch 1: Another knuckle curve , this one breaking in on Shaw. It caught the inside corner for strike one.
Pitch 2: Back the fastball, 98 mph, up in the zone. Shaw got the best swing of the inning on it — maybe the best swing on a Kimbrel pitch in two weeks. He fouled it back for strike 2.
Pitch 3: I don’t even know what you call this. Neither does Shaw.
So that brought up Domingo Santana, the Brewers last hope.
Pitch 1: Another knuckle curve, fouled off.
Pitch 2: Pure heat, 98 mph fastball over the heart of the plate, Santana obviously couldn’t catch up. Who could?
Pitch 3: Yep, Kimbrel had enough. Hard. Straight. Try to hit it.
And there you go — Kimbrel was in a little trouble. He threw 12 pitches. He struck out four batters. This guy is from another planet.
Zack is Back
Zack Greinke threw eight innings of one-hit ball on Thursday — don’t look now but his last five starts the league is hitting just .198 against him and his ERA is 2.06. Obviously this is small sample size theater but for a great pitcher who mysteriously couldn’t get people out a year ago, it’s the best possible sign.
In any case, Greinke had a no-hitter going through seven innings when he faced Pittsburgh’s Gregory Polanco to lead off the eighth. On the second pitch, Polanco yanked a way-down and way-in 90-mph fastball; he hit it home run distance. The only question was fair or foul. Arizona left fielder Gregor Blanco, just put in the game for defensive purposes, waved for the ball go hook foul, which it barely did. That’s what defensive replacements can do!
Three pitches later, Greinke threw a slider to the same spot that he had thrown the earlier lucky fastball. Blanco yanked it to almost the same spot. Almost. This one was a home run, the only hit Greinke would allow.
It reminded me, for some reason, of a young Greinke giving four home runs to the Chicago White Sox in 2008. After the game, a reporter tried to ask the home run question sensitively and then tried to offer some comfort.
“Well,” the reporter said, “they DO lead the league in home runs.”
Greinke stared at him with that glorious blank look that he’s made famous. He paused for exactly the right amount of time.
“Good for them,” he finally said.
I was arguing with a friend the other day — and this should tell you a little bit too much about my life — about this question: Which baseball player’s name is the most fun to say in a pirate voice?
He said Nolan Arrrrrrrr-enado, which is admittedly good.
But I think it’s Jason Varrrrrrrrrr-gas.
Now, you can settle the question once and for all:
Vargas has been sensational all year. His 1.01 ERA leads the league and Statcast™ numbers show that batters are just not quite connecting with his pitches. His offspeed stuff — particularly his changeup — has been absolutely devastating. Hitters have swung and missed on 41 of the 148 change-ups he has thrown, and nobody has an extra base hit off that change-up this year.
Vargas is 34 years old. He’s never been this good before. And so it’s certainly understandable to be skeptical. But for the moment he’s figured something out, and he could be a very important piece of the puzzle should the Royals look to make a bunch of moves before the end of the year in order to secure a brighter future.