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No chip, just normalcy -- finally -- for Kimbrel

@MLBastian
February 22, 2020

MESA, Ariz. -- Beyond the usual fine-tuning, preparation and production, Craig Kimbrel does not feel like he has anything to prove to himself this year. He can lean on his career track record, which had him on a Hall of Fame trajectory for the better part of a decade.

MESA, Ariz. -- Beyond the usual fine-tuning, preparation and production, Craig Kimbrel does not feel like he has anything to prove to himself this year. He can lean on his career track record, which had him on a Hall of Fame trajectory for the better part of a decade.

Of course, the world we live in operates very much in a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately way, and Kimbrel understands this, too. So he knows that he has a lot to prove to Cubs fans after the disappointment that was his 2019 campaign. Kimbrel was supposed to solve the bullpen, and instead his personal collapse contributed to Chicago missing the playoffs.

"I think a lot of people want me to prove something to them," he said. "But as far as going into the season trying to prove anything, I'm not doing that. I don't have a chip on my shoulder -- nothing like that.

"I'm just coming in here and doing what I know I can do. I'm not trying to do anything that I can't do, so I wouldn't say there's any chip or anything like that."

All those years of experience -- featuring a 2.08 ERA and 346 saves in 565 games -- have helped Kimbrel forge a routine for Spring Training. That was something he missed a year ago, when the closer went unsigned until the Cubs came calling with a three-year, $43 million offer in June. Now, Kimbrel can get back to his regularly scheduled programming.

Kimbrel spent the winter months focused on long toss, strength training and other activities in the name of building arm strength. The 31-year-old right-hander only pitched off a mound once before arriving to Arizona for Spring Training, and he has added more bullpen sessions in the past two weeks. A live batting practice workout against hitters is coming soon.

So Kimbrel is not "behind" schedule but rather focused on his own daily tasks that should put him on course for Opening Day. If everything goes according to his plan, Kimbrel said he should make seven or eight game appearances this spring. They might not all be Cactus League outings, but Kimbrel counts them all the same.

Cubs manager David Ross said Friday that "it'll be a little bit" before Kimbrel pitches in an official spring game.

"It doesn't matter," Kimbrel said. "I kind of structure to it to where I'm throwing every so many days, just so my body gets used to recovering and coming back and throwing again. That's what Spring Training is -- to get the body ready and get used to be doing what I'm going to be doing for six months."

That was an issue last year, when the disjointed offseason, missed Spring Training and abbreviated ramp-up after signing with the Cubs was all followed by injury setbacks. Kimbrel sustained a right knee issue in early August and then a right elbow problem in early September. Each issue got in the way of any positive momentum when it came to his fastball velocity.

The fastball has dropped in each of the past two years, and hitters have feasted on the pitch as a result.

Kimbrel's average fastball velocity (via Statcast):
2017: 98.3 mph
2018: 97.1 mph
2019: 96.2 mph

wOBA vs. Kimbrel's fastball
2017:
.198
2018: .299
2019: .488

Seven of the career-high nine homers Kimbrel allowed in 2019 came off his fastball, against which hitters had a .783 slugging and .781 expected slugging percentage. Kimbrel's signature curveball has remained effective even as its average velocity has declined as well, leading batters to home in on the mislocated four-seamers.

The hope in all of this is that a regular offseason and spring routine will position Kimbrel to return to form -- or at least get closer to his career norm. Prior to last season's 6.53 ERA in 23 appearances, the closer had a 1.91 ERA with 14.7 strikeouts per nine innings and 35 homers allowed total over nine seasons.

Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy kept in contact with Kimbrel over the winter months and said earlier this spring that he saw a "more relaxed" pitcher arrive in Arizona.

"What he went through last year, he knows how tough that is," Hottovy said. "That's a hard thing for somebody to do. So to be in this environment again and back with the team in Spring Training has just kind of put him at ease, for sure.

"And I think he's got a really good plan of what he wants to accomplish this spring, and we're able to map out six weeks of activity, not just three trying to get him ready for games."

Jordan Bastian covers the Cubs for MLB.com. He previously covered the Indians from 2011-18 and the Blue Jays from 2006-10. Read his blog, Major League Bastian and follow him on Twitter @MLBastian.