March 1, 2013 at 10:00 am by Mark Smith under Atlanta Braves
… but the hitters just can’t hit it. For Kimbrel’s career, he’s struck out 45% of the batters he’s faced, and he went on to strike out 50% of batters in 2012. In terms of per 9 rates, he’s struck out 16 per 9 in his career and a little over 16.6 last season. Kimbrel is known for his ability to strike hitters out. So what am I getting at?
Look at his pitch frequency map for 2011-2012.
The white spot is where his pitches are really concentrated (it’s hard to see on this chart as opposed to the one that’s in the system; sorry, I can’t get you that one for some reason). You’ll notice it’s concentrated right down the middle. What about each pitch? Certainly, he doesn’t throw both his fastball and his slider there.
Looking at each pitch, his fastball primarily resides there, and considering he throws 70% fastballs, that’s a lot of pitches right down the chute. Regarding his slider, Kimbrel throws it middle-down for strikes, and he tosses it below the zone (probably) for strike three. But what about 2010?
We see a little difference here, but to be completely honest, the difference in locations can be simply because he only threw about 20 innings that season. But it could also be a change in strategy. Kimbrel never had great control before 2011. It was actually the main concern about Kimbrel when he arrived. When he arrived in 2010, he still had problems with his control, posting a walk rate of 18.5%, but all of a sudden in 2011 and 2012, he posts walk rates of 10.5% and 6% (average is about 9% for RP). The question is why.
One reason is that he simply got better. It makes sense considering he’ll be 25 this year, and with more innings under his belt, his control should improve. The second option is that he just started throwing the ball down the middle. Screw messing around with up-down, in-out. Just throw your 80 fastball and 80 slider right down the frackin’ middle and see if they can hit it. If you’re always aiming for the middle, you’re going to walk fewer hitters. Minnesota Twins pitchers can’t do it without getting killed, but Kimbrel can. Once the hitters get behind in the count, Kimbrel can do whatever he wants. What about other closers?
You should see a few things. One, Rivera stays only on the corners and has impeccable command. Kimbrel may have found some control, but he doesn’t have command (or else he’d stay at the corners, too). Two, the concentrations of the other pitchers are little larger than that of Kimbrel’s, but because they aren’t THAT different, it seems like most closers let their stuff do the talking. Looking at Jason Motte and Aroldis Chapman …
They’re also pretty similar. Rare back and fire. While most closers seem to have ideas of letting their stuff do the work, Kimbrel is extraordinarily good at it, and the most heartening thing about this is that it makes Kimbrel’s control more sustainable. I had worried about it regressing, but if he’s basically grooving it down the middle and letting it ride, I’m not as worried. It also helps that he’s done it two years running (and improved), but it seems to be a plausible reason for why his control has improved. It’s just fascinating to me that it actually works.
Just for giggles, this is how the other main cogs in the bullpen look.