While the off-season has been filled with speculation that the Red Sox and Craig Kimbrel were destined to part ways, I’ve always believed that Kimbrel was destined to return to either Boston or Atlanta. I never bought the Phillies rumors or any others for that matter. It was always a battle between Atlanta and Boston and I believe that’s where we still stand today. Why you might ask? Let’s look at the facts.
Kimbrel showed serious signs of decline last season. While he still put together outstanding numbers (which is why the Red Sox can’t lose him), he wasn’t without his flaws.
Its hard to knock a guy who averaged 97.5 MPH on the fastball for diminished velocity, but it is always a prime signal of decline or an underlying injury. (I will reference stats from FanGraphs.com in this article and others numerous times and if this isn’t your 1A or 1B source for baseball statistics, it should be.) Craig Kimbrel has seen a decline of 1.2 MPH on the fastball from his 2017 high of 98.7. While this is not far off from his career average and shouldn’t be a major concern for alarm, its enough to ask the question, “What happened between 2017 and 2018?” Sometimes pitchers intentionally try a new grip to improve movement that has a negative impact on velocity. However, I’ve seen no evidence in video or otherwise to suggest that this is the case. More likely, this has to do with diminished action in that arm and the innings adding up. It is unlikely at 31 we will see a rebound in 2019. More likely, we will start to see him settle in around 95-96 MPH over the course of his next contract as opposed to his 97.8 career average.
Kimbrel saw a huge spike by his standards (and by many relievers standards for that matter) in his HR/9 ratio. His career average is inflated by the 1.01 HR/9 he posted this season. This is less alarming to me then the velocity mentioned above. In 2015 with the Padres, Kimbrel had a spike in homers as well (0.91 HR/9), also leading to ballooned ERA around 2.50. This is very similar to this season. However, that season he posted (at the time) a career high 98.4 average velocity and FIP / xFIP supported his ERA right where it was. On the plus side for the Sox, he saw much less hard contact in 2018 then 2017, which could point to that this inflated HR/9 isn’t anything to worry about.
FIP / xFIP in 2018
This is the major difference I see between the 2015 and 2018 seasons for Kimbrel. In 2015, FIP and xFIP (otherwise known as fielder independent ERA and fielder independent ERA with a 10.5% HR/FB ratio added for balance respectively) supported Kimbrel’s traditional ERA. In 2018, FIP and xFIP mark his work at 3.13 and 3.13 respectively. When FIP and xFIP agree looking at a situation like this one, I start to take into account the defensive capabilities of the team behind him. The Red Sox shine in this regard. Their outfield is outstanding. Their infield is above average aside from the hot corner. Vazquez and Leon are both solid behind the dish. This points to that if Kimbrel switches teams, his ERA is likely to suffer to the tune of around a 3.00 ERA (no longer in that “best closer in baseball” conversation). Kimbrel, if he wants to build his value for another contract at age 34-35, benefits greatly by a superb defense behind him and good pitch framers and game callers behind the plate. When thinking about long-term value, sticking with the Sox may be his best bet.
Dombrowski has learned his lesson… finally!
Dave Dombrowski is no fool. He watched a lot of championships slip away in Detroit due to a lackluster bullpen. He can say whatever he needs to to make Red Sox Nation confident if Kimbrel walks, or pretend to have leverage on Kimbrel in the form of a backup option, but its all a game. Dombrowski learned his lesson when he traded for Kimbrel and he’s not about to unlearn that lesson now. A lock down bullpen is critical to success in this age of baseball. With teams like the A’s and Rays rolling out bullpen days taunting the rest of the league with their depths of talent at the position, Dombrowski has woken up and is not about to let his closer walk. He just needed to let Kimbrel figure out what he already knew. He wasn’t getting a record deal and especially not from Boston. The “stupid spending” Phils were the only logical target and they have gone in another direction with David Robertson.
Kimbrel and the Red Sox need each other
This leads me back to the point of all this. Craig Kimbrel needs the Boston Red Sox. And lets make it clear that the Red Sox need Craig Kimbrel as well. To go into 2019 with Brasier and Barnes would be beyond risky and while Kimbrel seemed gone during the regular season, a look back at 2018 and the market for closers shows that he will not get anywhere near the record setting contract he is seeking. My prediction is that by January 30th, Kimbrel is back in a Red Sox uniform with a contract of 4 years and $56 million for an AAV of $14 million per year with an opt-out after year 2 in case the closer market opens back up in 2021. However, like Price, Kimbrel will stay for the duration of his deal.
The only team that could step in and go 4/$60-65 million and step into the Red Sox way is the Braves. If Joe Kelly got 3/$25 million from the Dodgers, Sox fans should be absolutely ecstatic when Kimbrel comes back at 4/$56.