February 6, 2012 at 1:31 pm by Ben Duronio under Atlanta Braves, PITCHf/x
Craig Kimbrel’s breaking ball is one of the more unique pitches in all of baseball. Thrown at roughly 87 miles per hour with tremendous downward movement, his breaking ball is a weapon no other pitcher retains.
After speaking with Harry Pavlidis of The Hardball Times and Albert Lyu of Fangraphs about what exactly the pitch should be labeled as, Brooks Baseball has it as a curveball while Texas Leaguers and Fangraphs have it as a slider, curveball – or even “slurve” — was the label that made the most sense. Although the velocity in which Kimbrel throws the pitch is not comparable with any other curveball in the league, – the highest ranking curveball velocity on Fangraphs is Felix Hernandez’s at 81.7 miles per hour – the spike grip Kimbrel uses creates top spin and significant downward movement making the pitch more like a power curveball rather than a slider, though calling it either is understandable. For what it’s worth, Mark Bowman tweeted me telling me that Kimbrel calls it a curve.
Below is a comparison of Kimbrel’s breaking ball with Felix Hernandez’s slider and curveball, taken from Brooks Baseball. I used Hernandez because his fastball velocity — 94.12 to Kimbrel’s 96.92 — is comparable and his two breaking balls show what a true slider and curveball should look like from a pitcher with this type of velocity.
|2011 Breaking Balls||H. Mvt||V. Mvt||V. Rel||RPM||MPH|
|Kimbrel’s Breaking Ball||7.91||-40.34||5.18||1,490||87.47|
Kimbrel is able to throw his breaking ball with a similar velocity as Hernandez’s slider but with movement between both of Felix’s breaking balls. The horizontal and vertical movement makes it look very much like a curveball, but the end result is more of a slurve – as his rotation also sits between Felix’s two breaking pitches.
Above is a chart taken from Lucas Apostorelis’ Fangraphs article breaking down this same pitch. Lucas, one of the top PITCHf/x writers around, offers some remarkable insight on how great the curveball truly is. As seen, Kimbrel’s curveball is a big outlier in comparison to the rest of the league. Most breaking balls are either thrown with great velocity or great movement, but Kimbrel’s is able to do both. The inimitable breaking ball along with his incredible fastball may help explain why Kimbrel currently has the highest strikeout per nine rate (15.39) and highest strikeout percentage (42.4%) of any pitcher in baseball history with at least as many innings as he has thrown.
The second highest strikeout percentage belongs to Billy Wagner, who was seen as a mentor of sorts for Kimbrel, though he was only in Atlanta for one season and they were only on the same roster for a bit over a month. Aside from handedness, there are many similarities between the two pitchers. The diminutive size of both is something that immediately stands out. Kimbrel is listed at 5”11, but I’m taking the under on that number. Wagner is listed at a more believable 5”10. Craig has a bit more beef on him, but both throw mid-to-upper nineties despite being undersized in comparison to most pitchers.
|Craig Kimbrel||Frequency||H. Mvt||V. Mvt||V. Rel||MPH|
|Billy Wagner||Frequency||H. Mvt||V. Mvt||V. Rel||MPH|
Above is the career trajectory and movement for both pitchers, also taken from Brooks Baseball. Both have used their two-pitch arsenal with similar frequency. The only information available for Wagner’s arsenal is from 2007 on, which was toward the tail end of his career so his velocity and movement may have been a bit different in his prime years. Wagner’s slider functions also functions as somewhat of a curveball or slurve, with vertical movement that is better than most pitchers’ sliders, although Wagner used a traditional slider grip rather than the spike grip that Kimbrel uses. Again, the big difference between the two pitches, much like the difference between Kimbrel’s breaking ball last year and the rest of the league’s, is the velocity combined with the movement.
|CU/SL Outcomes||Ball||Call Str.||Swings||Whiffs||BIP||GB|
The results received from the breaking balls are more comparable. Kimbrel’s pitch has still been more effective, with a higher called strike rate and higher whiff rate, but Wagner’s was certainly a very respectable pitch.
Kimbrel’s release point for his breaking ball starts close to where the right-handed batter’s shoulder or neck would be and the majority of pitches land on the low-and-away corner of the strike zone. This is relatively common for breaking balls, but not necessarily for breaking balls that are thrown with the type of velocity Kimbrel maintains.
Hitters have a lot to think about when facing Kimbrel, though he only throws two pitches. The speed with which the fastball is thrown combined with the movement and velocity of the breaking ball, which he throws on just under a third of his pitches, make for a difficult plate appearance for almost any hitter. While Kimbrel’s control is still a question, and I do expect the walk rate to increase, his dynamite fastball-breaking ball combination make for one of the best two-pitch arsenals in all of baseball. As Kevin Goldstein stated even before his dominant rookie season, “his two plus-plus pitches rate with those of any late-inning reliever around.”