'Future Hall of Famer' Kimbrel back at ASG

July 12th, 2021

finished off Dodgers catcher Will Smith with a curveball that dove low and outside and eluded his swing. The Cubs' closer remained stoic and stone-faced as he walked off the mound in Los Angeles.

Catcher Willson Contreras pumped his fist hard, burst out of his crouch, removed his mask and jumped excitedly as he made his way to Kimbrel. Teammates poured out of Chicago's dugout and joined the growing mob around the closer.

After a few moments, Kimbrel figured out he had just finished off a combined no-hitter and broke into a wide smile and laughter on the Dodger Stadium infield.

"I had no clue," Kimbrel said after making history.

It was a snapshot into the level of dominance on display from Kimbrel as the anchor of the Cubs' bullpen this season. The veteran is no stranger to big moments -- he is baseball's active saves leader, after all -- but delivering in them again took time and effort from Kimbrel, and plenty of patience from the Cubs.

Now, Kimbrel is in Denver this week as an All-Star again, alongside teammate Kris Bryant. The Midsummer Classic is where the hard-throwing closer belongs and he has been there more often than not as he has built his Hall of Fame credentials.

"I've known him for such a long time," Cubs manager David Ross said. "It's fun to kind of watch the evolution of his career. And still, it's him just doing the same thing he did when he was a rookie in Atlanta."

Ross was behind the plate for the Braves on May 7, 2010, when Kimbrel made his MLB debut. The pitcher struck out two in one shutout inning against the Phillies. Ross was there again (as a special advisor for the Cubs) in June 2019, watching Kimbrel throw and doing his part in convincing Chicago to sign the free agent.

And Ross watched as Kimbrel's manager when the pitcher's injury-marred 2019 carried over into the delayed and abbreviated '20 season. In Kimbrel's first 27 games for the Cubs, he had an 8.48 ERA and was giving up homers and walks at an uncharacteristic and alarming rate.

After Kimbrel's Aug. 6, 2020, outing, Ross had to give the long-time closer a break from the ninth-inning duties. At that juncture, Kimbrel did not pitch for a week, using the time to focus on some delivery adjustments and to take a mental breather.

"He was definitely there with me when I wasn't doing so well," Kimbrel said of Ross. "We had a great understanding last year that if I couldn't do my job, obviously I wouldn't be in this spot.

"And that's what happened. I was able to figure it out."

Part of that process for the 33-year-old Kimbrel was incorporating more advanced data into his process. He changed his setup over the offseason to include a Rapsodo pitch tracking system at his home and has worked with the Cubs on balancing feel with analysis.

"It's a combination," Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said. "Now, it's, 'How can we match what you feel with what the data says, and give you some instant feedback of what you're doing?'"

Heading into the final weekend before the All-Star break, Kimbrel had a 0.81 ERA in 44 1/3 innings dating back to his Aug. 14 return to games in 2020. Among relievers with at least 30 innings over that time period, Kimbrel ranked first in strikeout rate (48.2 percent), strikeout-minus-walk rate (38 percent) and opponents' average (.101).

Through 33 appearances this season, Kimbrel had a 0.57 ERA with 54 strikeouts against 10 walks in 31 2/3 innings. His 20 saves to that point helped him climb to ninth all-time in career saves (368). Next in Kimbrel's sights is Joe Nathan (377).

Kimbrel was the National League's Rookie of the Year Award in 2011. He has a World Series ring (2018) and has received Cy Young Award votes (in five seasons) and MVP Award votes (three seasons).

"Prior to coming to us, he had an amazing career already," Hottovy reminded.

Among the 30 players with at least 300 saves in baseball history, only Mariano Rivera (13) and Goose Gossage (nine) have more All-Star appearances than Kimbrel (eight). This marks his first nod with the Cubs and his first since 2018, when he pitched for Boston.

"He's come a long way since we signed him," Bryant said, "and he was signing halfway through a season and trying to get comfortable and going through some struggles.

"And now, I mean, he's a future Hall of Famer, in my mind. And it's really fun to play alongside him."

Ross added that Kimbrel's story from the past two years gives a great example for young pitchers to learn from as they encounter their own trials or setbacks.

"Being one of the best that's ever done it," Ross said, "and then to go through that last year and to be back at one of the best in the game, I think, just speaks so many volumes, on so many levels."