Dave Roberts Not Considering Removing Craig Kimbrel As Dodgers Closer

The Los Angeles Dodgers made an offseason trade to acquire Craig Kimbrel hoping he would lock down the ninth inning, but so far this season, he has arguably been the club’s least effective reliever by the results.

Across 21 innings, Kimbrel owns a 4.71 ERA and has walked nearly five batters per nine. He has only blown one save in 13 chances and still owns a 2.33 FIP, but batters are also hitting .262 off him and his 1.57 WHIP is the highest on the staff among qualified relievers.

Kimbrel again struggled on Sunday by giving up two runs on two hits while walking two and striking out two as he took the loss in the Cleveland Guardians’ 5-3 victory. After the game though, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts expressed confidence in his closer.

“I think we’re a way’s from that point,” Roberts said when asked if other relievers would get an opportunity as the closer. “Obviously we’ve used Hudson, Phillips and Graterol in different roles, but as far as specifically the closer role, Craig is our closer.

“I just think there’s so many good throws in there and right now there’s a little, if something can go wrong, it does. Certainly the walks in there at times isn’t ideal, but there’s a lot of soft contact and the stuff is still real. The fastball when it’s in the strike zone is great.”

The Dodgers came up with a plan to get Kimbrel more usage with the belief that some of his struggles were partly due to going long stretches without taking the mound. However, he has posted a 4.50 ERA in June, so the results have yet to show themselves.

“I think recently I see just some close misses and soft contact,” Roberts said. “He’s just not catching a break. Certainly the walk wasn’t helpful and then there was a ball that could’ve been fair or foul, and it ended up costing us.

“I think he’s close. He’s just not in the strike zone as much as he’d like to be or we’d like to have him.”

Roberts is correct in that Kimbrel isn’t getting hit hard often, ranking in the 93rd percentile of hard hit rate and the 70th percentile of barrel rate, but batters are still hitting .412 off him when they put the ball in play.

That is almost a guarantee to drop to around .300 or lower, which is the average nearly all pitchers allow on balls in play over a full season of work.

That seems to be Kimbrel’s primary issue as his pitches are in the strike zone at about the same rate as they have been for most of his career.

Overall, 48.8% of his pitches have been in the zone, which comes in seventh of his 13 seasons, but it’s above his career rate of 47.9%. Kimbrel’s fastball has also been in the strike zone 59.5% of the time, which is the best rate of his career.

One other issue is his curveball has been in the zone less than 30% of the time, which is the second-worst mark of his career and one of the only two seasons where it’s been below 33%. Kimbrel has also had issues getting hitters to chase his pitches (33rd percentile), so fewer curves in the zone and fewer hitters chasing it is leading to more walks.

While hitters aren’t chasing as often, the spin rate and vertical break on his curveball haven’t changed, so it’s a positive sign the quality of the pitch is still there.

Overall, Kimbrel has a long track record as an elite reliever and the quality of his pitches is still there, so it’s fair for the Dodgers to continue keeping their trust in him for the time being. The veteran right-hander has truly experienced a lot of unlucky outings and that should eventually turn around — unless he did something to anger the baseball gods.

Kimbrel feels he’s been unlucky, but points to walk troubles

The data makes it clear Kimbrel has been unlucky this season, but it has been made worse by the number of hitters he is walking.

“Giving up runs, walking guys,” Kimbrel said about his inconsistent results. “I’m not necessarily giving up a lot of hard-hit balls, but when you’re walking guys and then giving up singles or balls that aren’t hit so hard, runs are going to score.

“It seems like I’ve had quite a few outings where that happened.”

At the start of June, Kimbrel agreed with Roberts that more opportunities would help him, but it seems the biggest thing they might do is help normalize his results and even out his luck. However, Kimbrel doesn’t think his current struggles have been due to a lack of usage.

“If I’m getting the ball a lot, that usually means I’m throwing well,” Kimbrel said. “Any time you get into a good roll and rhythm, that always helps.

“I don’t think [Sunday] had anything to do with that. Overall, I felt pretty good and am happy with my mechanics and what I was able to throw. The result just wasn’t what you want.

“I’ll have to come back and do it again in a couple days.”

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