Craig Kimbrel has not passed the eye test this season in comparison to last season. Now this is not a major issue as 2012 was not only a great season for Craig or for any reliever, it was amazing for any pitcher ever. To not pitch as well as 2012 would almost be expected. However, Craig has done more than just expected regression.
In watching his pitching, it became obvious that he has a different approach with first hitters this season. While tracking down the details of pitches showed nothing more than more basic stats, here are the details…
Against his first batter of an inning, Craig had issued a walk 11.3% of the time in his career coming into this season. In 2013, that number is up to 13.5%. In a similar manner, when bases are empty, coming into the season, Craig threw 1.48 balls per plate appearance, and that number is up to 1.61 per plate appearance now. These numbers may seem like a small thing, but the numbers come out like this – in 163 appearances before this season, Kimbrel allowed 43 to reach base, approximately 1 out of 4. This season that number is 12 in 38 appearances, or 1 out of 3.
The other interesting thing is that Craig isn’t striking out the first hitter like he has over his career. Coming into 2013, he had struck out 46.54% of first batters of an appearance. That means that nearly half the time, the first batter to see Craig ended up back on his seat without even putting the ball into play. This year that number is down to 35.13%, over a 10% change. Allowing more of those first batters to put the ball in play leads to more hits, even if it is only about 3% more safe hits. The expected batting average of a plate appearance ending in a strikeout is obviously .000, but the expected batting average of a plate appearance ending in a batted ball is roughly .300 for the league, and even as sterling as Craig is, he’s had a .290 BABIP in his career. Lower strikeout rates mean more balls in play at the end of at bats, which means more chances for a defensive error or a safe hit to lead to runners on base.
While Craig is still about as sure as they come in the business, and we aren’t conjuring up memories of Dan Kolb or Bob Wickman with him out there, his first batter stats this year may underline a lack of readiness, physically or mentally, when he enters the game this year. He’s still elite, but he’s not untouchable as the Craig of 2012 seemed to be.