Cubs have to ask themselves: ‘Can Craig Kimbrel still handle the ninth?’

(Photo by Ron Vesely/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
(Photo by Ron Vesely/MLB Photos via Getty Images) /

In 2021 the Chicago Cubs will once again look to hand the ball to Craig Kimbrel in the ninth inning which begs the question: ‘Can he still close?’

Kimbrel will be heading into his age-33 season and has been in decline since his age-29 campaign way in 2017. That being said, some recent projections shouldn’t be cause for celebration for the Wrigley Field faithful.

Baseball Reference projects Kimbrel to sport a 4.50 ERA, 1.5 HR/9, 4.3 BB/9 and 10.9 K/9. These are not the statistics of even a good reliever, let alone an elite late-inning arm. The major negative out of the hypothetical stat line is the 10.9 punchouts per nine. This would be his worst tally by nearly three full strikeouts. For a pitcher who has experienced problems keeping the ball in the yard to put it lightly, a decrease in strikeouts is certainly worrisome.

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That home run per nine mark would fall right in line with his tally form 2020. All this being said, there could still be a positive to take from these projections. That positive being he is only projected to walk 4.3 batters per nine. This would be a better stat than he posted in all but one season in Boston, where he was far more dominant than he’s been so far in Chicago. I say this to suggest Kimbrel may, in fact, be learning to pitch and if this is the case, the right-hander could very well outperform this mixed bag of projections.

You are probably thinking, ‘Learn how to pitch? He’s played 11 years in the majors!’ That’s true. However he has relied on elite velocity and a magic curveball that performs a disappearing act about six feet from home for the majority of his career and that’s led to almost all of his success.

That approach flies in contrast with the ultimate craftsman that is Kyle Hendricks. Hendricks has relied on elite control for the entire career. The soft-tossing righty has never had the velocity of Kimbrel to fall back on. Instead he’s mastered  his mechanics, perfectly placing his pitches and keeping hitters off-balance. It is this approach that Kimbrel must adapt if he hopes to continue to succeed at the major league level.

The good news is this can be done. A perfect example of this is former Cy Young winner CC Sabathia. For the majority of his career Sabathia was known for the elite combination of high velocity, unworldly movement and extreme durability. It is this combination that earned Sabathia his high profile move to the Yankees and the one that helped him lead that very Yankees team to a championship.

Then, in 2013 everything went south for Sabathia. Home runs and walks went up and strikeouts down. The movement was gone and, with it, the velocity. But Sabathia didn’t quit, he wanted to keep pitching and contributing to a winning team so he rededicated himself to learning the art of pitching. And two years later, at age 35, he brought his ERA under 4.00 where it would stay the next three years as he re-cemented himself as a starter New York could count on.

So to answer the question, ‘Can he still close?’ Yes but he must follow the Sabathia model. I believe Kimbrel can reinvent himself in a similar fashion. Changing yourself as a pitcher is not easy, but players don’t achieve the peaks in the game Kimbrel has without hard work.

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He’s put in the work to get here. Now, I have faith that he can work to once again become an imposing presence late in ballgames.