Kimbrel's 2020 vision: 'Strive to get better'

Offseason dive into analytics and full Spring Training spark optimism

October 4th, 2019

CHICAGO -- The only batter that faced in his offseason before signing with the Cubs in June was a silhouette carved out of plywood in his barn. As it turned out, firing baseballs into a net rather than having a normal Spring Training proved problematic.

On the final day of Chicago's season -- a campaign damaged by Kimbrel's struggles in the ninth -- the closer was already looking five months into the future. With a contract in hand, Kimbrel was eager to turn the page on a disastrous 2019 with the goal of using '20 to show it was all a circumstances-riddled fluke.

"I was just talking about it with someone else, saying it's going to be exciting next year rolling into camp," Kimbrel said. "Being around these guys for a couple months now, and having a whole [Spring Training] camp next year, I'm going to help these guys out in any way I can, and obviously learn from them. You can never stop learning."

That last point was something Kimbrel reiterated in multiple responses.

The main hope for the Cubs right now is simple: A normal Spring Training will equal better results for Kimbrel. The right-hander believes that, too. As a free agent last offseason, Kimbrel found a market that froze and the ice did not crack and melt until June, when he agreed to a three-year, $43 million contract with the Cubs that was free of Draft-pick compensation.

The 31-year-old Kimbrel knows there is more to it than simply expecting that a return to the usual spring routine will fix all that went awry this past season. The closer pointed to other emerging arms in the Chicago bullpen -- Kyle Ryan, Rowan Wick, Brad Wieck -- and noted how they used analytics to forge impressive results.

"It's a very, very talented group of young arms," Kimbrel said. "I wouldn't even say young, but young experience-wise. They have really good stuff. They've really been able to put stuff together with all the new data over the last year and become great pitchers."

Diving into the data is something Kimbrel also plans on doing in the coming months.

"There are things that I've learned that has integrated itself into the game over the last three, four, five years," Kimbrel said. "I think I'm going to dig into it a little bit more, look at the numbers a little bit more, pay attention to that a little bit more, just better verse myself in this game and try to get better.

"That's what you have to do in this game, you have to always strive to get better and figure out those things. That's a little bit of what I'm going to do this winter."

Specifically, Kimbrel will be looking into why batters seemingly were able to sit on his fastball.

Seven of the career-high nine home runs that Kimbrel surrendered in '19 in his 20 2/3 innings came via his four-seamer, which dropped to 96.2 mph on average per Statcast. That was down from 97.1 mph in '18 and 98.3 mph in '17. Kimbrel topped 97.1 mph 51 times out of the 251 fastballs recorded by Statcast, and he only went over 98.3 mph once.

The drop in velocity was the first issue, but that alone does not explain why hitters posted a .326 average, .783 slugging percentage and .488 wOBA off Kimbrel's fastball this season. Over the previous three years combined, those rates were .160, .320 and .263, respectively, per Statcast. Another factor was that Kimbrel did not consistently locate the pitch at the top of the zone as well as in previous years.

If Kimbrel can clean some of that up and avoid another velocity drop next season, he believes his numbers will look much different. If his home run rate gets closer to his career norm (0.6 per nine innings for his career and 0.8 per nine over 2016-18), that 6.53 ERA he posted in '19 would probably drop down closer to 3.00 or better.

"That's the thing about being a relief pitcher. There's a fine line between success and struggle," Kimbrel said. "Minimizing damage, staying away from the big innings, things like that, those are things I wasn't able to do this year that I've been really good at over my career, I'd find myself in trouble and get out of it. There were times where I wasn't able to get out of it this year and the numbers show that.

"My hard-contact rate shows that, with missing with pitches and guys sitting on my fastball and giving up on the breaking ball. Small things like that that I'm really going to have to dig into and pay attention to as I move forward next year."

"By no means has the struggle that I had this year deterred me or given me any kind of feeling like, 'I can't do it,' or anything like that. I know I can still come out here and be successful and do my job. I'm looking forward to digging into it a little bit more and doing what I can to get better."

Kimbrel will not pick up a baseball again until January. In the meantime, he will take a break before starting his offseason workout regimen. The closer said he will avoid lifting like a football player -- he joked at his introductory press conference that was one issue that came with having four extra months of offseason -- and he will pore over the data of a season gone wrong.

Kimbrel once again will throw into that net in his barn -- maybe even with that plywood batter standing in -- but he will know a normal spring is around the corner.

"He's really determined," Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said. "He feels awful about the way this year went. ... I think you're going to see a really determined individual next year who will benefit from a whole Spring Training."