May 08, 2013

Craig Kimbrel: Should we be concerned?

There’s been a lot of chatter about Craig Kimbrel’s two blown saves, which came within days of one another, against the Mets on May 3rd and against the Reds on May 7th. Kimbrel gave up three homeruns in those two games and his season ERA is up to 3.38. Last season he finished with an ERA of 1.01 and was about as good as a modern-day closer can be.

But there is nothing to worry about. I repeat, there is nothing to worry about. You don’t need in-depth scouting or sabermetric knowledge to realize Kimbrel is likely to finish the 2013 season as one of the best closers in the game once again. With just some basic understanding of pitching and statistics, it’s easy to see there is little to worry about regarding the Braves’ closer.

First of all we should have expected that Kimbrel’s 2013 would be slightly worse than his 2012 season. It’s just unlikely that any player who was that dominant can repeat it. If Babe Ruth hits 60 homeruns and no one in history had ever come close, odds are he’s not going to do it again next season. It’s hard to go from historically great to even more great. So it’s not shocking, even if Kimbrel’s performance over the last few days does mean a little something, that Kimbrel is a little worse this year than last.

But Kimbrel is still great. Kimbrel is still missing plenty of bats. He’s struck out 14.2 batters per 9 innings pitched, down from last season but still amazing. His walk rate is the same as last season, 2 batters per 9 innings pitched. He has given up three homeruns in 13 1/3 innings pitched after giving up three in 62 2/3 innings pitched last season. So odds are his homerun rate by season’s end is sure to be higher than last season. But that’s no guarantee he’ll be a homerun machine. And keep in mind one of the homeruns he allowed this season was a wall-scraper in the Great American Small Park in Cincinnati that would have been an out in almost every other park. This is not insignificant when we are talking three homeruns instead of two.

Kimbrel’s 3.38 ERA seems rather high, especially for Craig Kimbrel. Jacob Peterson (@junkstats on Twitter) pointed out Wednesday, “Craig Kimbrel through May 7, 2013: 3.38 ERA, 40% K rate. Kimbrel through May 7, 2012: 3.27 ERA, 39% K rate.” When a reliever gives up runs early in the season, without a large sample of scoreless innings under his belt, his ERA will be skewed for a while. If Kimbrel gives up 5 runs within a couple of week in July or August, no one wonders if anything major is wrong. But when he gives up 5 runs within a couple of weeks in April and May and it skews his season ERA for the entire season up to that point, especially when he gives up 3 homeruns within the span of a few games, some of us are going to freak out.

It’s the nature of small samples. Kimbrel was bound to give up some runs and some homeruns in 2013. Because he gave up some early in the season, therefore skewing his full season numbers, we see 3.38 versus 1.01 and we think he’s a different pitcher. But by season’s end, there is still a good chance, based on all other indicators, that he’ll finish closer to 1.01 than 3.38.



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