Less than two innings isn't much of a sample size, but since coming back from shoulder soreness, Craig Kimbrel hasn't looked much like the Craig Kimbrel of old. The Atlanta Braves closer blew his first save, giving up a double to Derek Dietrich, raising questions about how healthy he is and whether the Braves have yet another injury issue to deal with early in 2014.
Kimbrel has been nearly automatic since taking over the Braves closer spot. After a decade of mix-and-match at the back of the pen (and a number of injuries), Bobby Cox finally had the closer he had been looking for, a combination of power and control not seen since early Jonathan Papelbon.
Both Kimbrel and manager Fredi Gonzalez told fellow B/R writer Knox Bardeen reporting for the Macon Telegraph that Kimbrel was "fine." However, Kimbrel had complained of shoulder soreness back on April 15. A bit of rest has gotten him from sore to fine, but the results aren't following.
Looking at Kimbrel through the lens of PitchF/x shows nearly nothing. While his velocity is slightly down in aggregate, again the small sample size has to be noted. He is, in scouting parlance, living at 95 and touching 97 with his fastball, showing the normal movement. The curve is also consistent. His release point remains in his normal range as well. Even in his latest start he's 95-96.
Shoulder soreness is a vague description, not even a diagnosis. Kimbrel has never had major arm issues during his time in the majors, but things like "dead arm" are common. Dead arm is simply a muscular failure that requires rest. However, with Kimbrel's velocity holding steady, it may be that he's increasing effort to get the same result. That can transfer some of the load from the muscles to the tendons and ligaments, a big danger for any pitcher.
Currently, Kimbrel has an unnaturally high BABIP of .500. This means that half of the balls that are put in play are falling for hits. Given the solid defense that the Braves have, including defensive master Andrelton Simmons, there's no way that will hold up.
Research by Russell Carleton has indicated it takes over 800 balls in play before this stabilizes, so Kimbrel and most relievers won't get near that, leading to some wild swings in their stat lines. However, over the last three years, baseball in general has been just below .300 with BABIP. The baseball gods owe Kimbrel some outs.
Closers tend to be fungible. They have a basic skill set or a single dominating pitch, but they seldom hold onto it for long. Most lose velocity or see the league adjust to their slider, but for a few like Kimbrel, Papelbon or the pinnacle of the type, Mariano Rivera, they can occasionally become not only dominant but very rich by doing so.
The Braves have never had much consistency at the position, until Kimbrel took over. John Smoltz is probably the best remembered Braves closer of the last 20 years, but he went to the slot due to injury, not stuff. The team failed at building its own closers, running through names like Kerry Ligtenberg and John Rocker and then trying to buy closers, going with players like Bob Wickman and Billy Wagner with mixed success.
Kimbrel's advanced stats and sensor data shows nothing that indicates that this downturn is sustainable. If Kimbrel's shoulder issue is nothing more than soreness, things should normalize for him quickly. If it's a bit more and he's compensating with more effort due to reduced strength, we should see a drop in velocity over the next few outings, especially if he's not sufficiently recovering between starts.
Kimbrel should be watched closely as the Braves try to figure out how to keep him from sub-recovering between outings. Watch for his velocity and release point to stay consistent. A drop is bad, but a "reach back" increase in velocity would be a negative sign as well.
There's no clear handcuff for Kimbrel, though Jordan Walden has experience and is pumping 99 mph heat this season. As with any struggling closer situation, the best fantasy advice is to hold on and hope that Kimbrel's consistency returns as his luck evens out.
Data courtesy Baseball-Reference and Baseball Savant.