COMMENTARY | The Atlanta Braves closer, Craig Kimbrel, was just one out away from becoming the fastest closer in MLB history to notch save No. 100 when he faced the Cincinnati Reds in the ninth inning of Game 2 last Tuesday. Instead, Kimbrel served up back-to-back home runs to Devin Mesoraco and Shin-Soo Choo and the Braves fell 5-4.
Unfortunately, the blown save has made far too many appearances for the Atlanta closer early on this season. After tallying his third blown save of the year, Kimbrel has already tied his entire 2012 total. His 3.38 ERA is also just slightly north of the 1.01 mark he put up in his last campaign. With Jonny Venters currently on the disabled list, Kimbrel's struggles have been magnified that much more, which has some Braves fans wondering exactly what is going on with their closer who, up until now, has been about as automatic as any pitcher in baseball.
Before the season started, Kimbrel talked about the number of strikeouts he had last season and how he needed to learn to get people out earlier, instead of having to throw more pitches to get the K. While that sounds good in theory -- less pitches does mean Kimbrel would have more in the tank later in the year -- it also means that he would be messing with the formula that has made him such a dominant pitcher over his four years in the league.
Early on this season, it is apparent that Kimbrel is pitching to generate more contact, but the results have not been what he had hoped. In 2012, Kimbrel led the league with 16.7 strikeouts per nine innings. While his number is still great this season (14.43), it is down more than two K/9.
Through his first 14 appearance in 2012, Kimbrel tossed 258 pitches. When compared to the 211 pitches he has thrown this year, it is easy to see a shift in philosophy has occurred with regards to how Kimbrel is attacking hitters. The problem is that pitching to contact for someone who throws 99+ mph is that any contact may be hard contact. Kimbrel has already coughed up three homers this season, which is the same number he allowed in the entirety of each of the last two seasons.
In 2012, Kimbrel didn't allow more than one hit in any of the 62 2/3 innings his pitched. Through just 13 1/13 innings of work this season, he has already allowed multi-hit innings to happen three different times.
Rest is something that can hurt a player just as much as it can help them. For a pitcher to keep their stuff sharp, they need to be out their pitching consistently on a regular basis. Kimbrel could simply be battling through some rust brought on by his sporadic number of appearances lately. Since April 24, Kimbrel pitched once, got five days off, pitched again, got four days off and then was asked to pitch on back-to-back days for the first time in two weeks. In fact, two of Kimbrel's blown saves this season have come on the second night of back-to-back appearances.
This season, the Braves have had long winning streaks as well as long losing streaks. This type of streaky play means that Kimbrel is sometimes needed a lot or not at all for multiple days in a row on the calendar. His struggles could be alleviated by simply having the club itself playing more consistently to the point where he will be able to get out their enough to build a rhythm.
Kimbrel does have 10 saves this season, which is good enough for third in the NL. It just comes down to the fact that his new pitching philosophy has cost the Braves three W's in the win column already and we are only in May. Still, the mindset of a closer needs to be that of a brain-injury victim who has lost the ability to retain anything in their short-term memory, and, thankfully, Kimbrel does seem to possess that invaluable trait.
"It's not going to affect my confidence, Kimbrel said. "It's just going to push me to go out there and go harder, I can tell you that. I can't wait to get back on the bump."
Is it really a good thing that Kimbrel is trying to generate more contact and get batters out earlier in counts, or does he need to go back to his old style of trying to punch-out every player foolish enough to step into the box?
Anthony Schreiber is a freelance sportswriter based in "Braves Country." He has penned articles for a variety of online publications and magazines.
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