It’s no secret that Dodgers closer Craig Kimbrel, acquired in a trade near the end of spring training, has not been the dominant back-of-the-bullpen piece the Dodgers hoped they were acquiring when they sent outfielder AJ Pollock to the White Sox for him.
In his first 45 games with Los Angeles, Kimbrel has posted a 4.46 ERA and has blown four of the five one-run save opportunities he’s been handed. He has allowed at least one earned run in 15 of his 45 appearances and at least one baserunner in 37.
One notable difference between Kimbrel this year and in previous years is his luck on batted balls. Kimbrel’s BABIP allowed (batting average on balls in play) this season is .388; his career mark coming into the season was .263. His strikeout rate is down, at 28.7 percent compared to his career mark of 41.3 percent coming into the season.
“If I’m getting beat by soft contact, how do you fix it? Get them to swing and miss. I just gotta do that more.”
Manager Dave Roberts isn’t so sure that’s the solution. In his pregame media scrum before the series finale in Milwaukee on Thursday, Roberts said:
“I think he’s being too fine at times and I think he has the ability to be more efficient. I think sometimes, to be quite honest, I think he’s chasing the strikeout instead of chasing outs. I just want to see consistent outs.
“When you’re throwing 19 pitches an inning, it just takes away from your utility. … He’s getting strike one, then he starts to be too fine. And then when the hitter gets back in the count, you can’t be fine anymore. So now you’re getting pitches that are spoiled. We want outs. I don’t care how they come.”
The counterintuitive thing is, Kimbrel’s lower strikeout rate might be solved by chasing the strikeout less. As Roberts explained, Kimbrel’s attempts to be “too fine” have led to better hitter’s counts, when strikeouts are less likely.
As Dodgers legend Sandy Koufax famously said, “I became a good pitcher when I stopped trying to make them miss the ball and started trying to make them hit it.” Well, in Koufax’s first seven seasons, from 1955-61, his strikeout rate was 23.2 percent. Once he “stopped trying to make them miss the ball,” for the last five years of his Hall of Fame career, his strikeout rate was 26.8 percent.
So Roberts probably isn’t saying he wants Kimbrel to strike out fewer batters. He’s probably not even saying he wouldn’t like to see more strikeouts. What he’s saying is that by chasing the strikeout, Kimbrel isn’t putting himself in position to be as successful as he can be.
We don’t fully understand all the nuances that go into BABIP, and there’s certainly some element of luck involved. But it stands to reason that a ball in play on a hitter’s count is more likely to fall in than a ball in play on a pitcher’s count, simply because the quality of swing is likely to be better.
So the answer for Kimbrel really might be to try to make them hit it.
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