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The Craig Kimbrel signing by the numbers

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The Cubs are all in for 2019 with their biggest signing in at least two years

MLB: World Series-Boston Red Sox at Los Angeles Dodgers
Craig Kimbrel pitching in the ninth inning of game three of the 2018 World Series
Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

The Chicago Cubs lead major league baseball in walkoff hits. It’s June 6 and they’ve already walked off a win five times, including three different walk off home runs in a week between May 7 and May 11. To put this in perspective, when the Cardinals walked off the Cubs last Friday in St. Louis that was the Cardinals' first walkoff win of the year. It’s been a remarkable stretch of Cubs baseball and we should all be very grateful for it.

But the reason those walkoffs existed is a little less celebratory, and I say this as a person who was lucky enough to be at a couple of those games. Those are all games I will cherish forever and I pity the fool who tries to pry those victories out of my cold, dead hands, but the thing is, three of the five Cubs walkoffs in 2019 occurred because the bullpen gave up a game that the Cubs should have locked down.

You see, the dark side to the Cubs leading the majors in walk off wins in 2019 is that they are also tied for third in a much worse category: blown saves. The Cubs have already blown 11 saves in 2019 and the company they find themselves in for this particular leaderboard is pretty yikes:

Teams by blown saves 2019

Team Blown Saves
Team Blown Saves
NY Mets 14
Pittsburgh 12
Oakland 11
Seattle 11
Chicago Cubs 11
Washington 11
Detroit 10
Kansas City 10
Atlanta 10
Baltimore 9
Boston 9
LA Dodgers 9
San Diego 9
NY Yankees 7
Cincinatti 7
St. Louis 7
Arizona 7
LA Angels 6
Texas 6
Houston 6
Colorado 6
Miami 6
Milwaukee 5
Philadelphia 5
Tampa Bay 5
Chicago White Sox 3
Cleveland 3
Minnesota 3
Toronto 3
San Francisco 3
Teams by blown saves 2019 ESPN

Enter stage right: Craig Kimbrel.

The pitches

Craig Kimbrel relies primarily on two pitches: a four-seam fastball that sits at about 98 MPH and a knuckle curve that sits around 87 MPH. The velocity has been fairly static across his career although there was a slight dip in fastball velocity in 2018:

Craig Kimbrel Velocity by Pitch by Year
Brooks Baseball

That pitch mix generates a lot of swing and miss. For everyone who has lamented the Cubs lack of power arms, lament no more. Kimbrel is the definition of a power arm. The first chart below shows his swinging strike percentage by year and the second is his whiff rate:

Kimbrel Swinging Strike Percentage by Year
Brooks Baseball
Kimbrel Whiffs per Swing by Year
Brooks Baseball

The stats

Craig Kimbrel is an elite strike thrower and he’s been striking out a lot of guys for a long time. Below you can see Kimbrel’s K/9 by year along with where he ranked across MLB across qualified relievers, one thing to note that is not in this chart, Kimbrel has been fairly durable. He’s thrown at least 50 innings in every season since 2011:

Craig Kimbrel K/9 by Year and MLB Ranks

Year K/9 Rank
Year K/9 Rank
2014 13.86 5
2015 13.20 5
2016 14.09 4
2017 16.43 1
2018 13.86 7
K/9 by year with MLB ranks Fangraphs

To put this in perspective the highest K/9 on the Cubs currently belongs to Yu Darvish at 10.58. Among relievers it’s Kyle Ryan at 10.08. Kimbrel immediately will add an element of swing and miss to the pen that has been lacking in 2019.

Takeaways

This signing is not without risk. Signing Kimbrel represents a bit of a departure for Theo Epstein’s front office. He’s demonstrated a reluctance to give this size of contract to closers, preferring instead to trade (Jorge Soler for Wade Davis) or sign prospective closers at a lower cost (Brandon Morrow). Looking around the league you can see why he’s been reticent. While the Aroldis Chapman deal appears to be working out for the Yankees he has struggled at times as has the other mega contract recipient, Kenley Jansen.

Kimbrel’s deal looks similar to Mark Melancon’s or Wade Davis’ in terms of size and duration. Neither Melancon nor Davis have really performed up to their contract’s expectations. Given his long layoff, it is certainly possible that Kimbrel will struggle as he ramps in the middle of the season. We all remember what happened with Greg Holland in 2018.

However, it was abundantly clear that the Cubs needed bullpen help and the front office has responded to that need by acquiring the single best available arm on the market. Signing Kimbrel also ensures that he will not be a member of the Cardinals, Brewers or any other National League team looking for bullpen help. Jon Heyman tweeted Kimbrel’s statistics against his new division rivals last night and well, these are video game numbers:

Kimbrel immediately strengthens the glaring weakness for a Cubs team that finds itself in a tight division race in June. Pedro Strop is back and throwing well. Kimbrel gives the Cubs a huge weapon and a better chance at winning the division than they had yesterday morning. If Brandon Morrow can rehab in time to make an impact in the second half the Cubs have one of the most terrifying bullpens in the majors as they head down the stretch.