MESA, Ariz. – Craig Kimbrel’s performance during his Cubs tenure has been either rocky or dominant with very little in between. The goal of the MLB’s active leader in saves and the Cubs over the past two seasons has been to find the consistency that made him one of the best closers the game has ever seen.
Kimbrel’s first three appearances this spring didn’t go exactly like he had hoped as he struggled, allowing nine earned runs over 2 2/3 innings and lots of loud contact. But after starting out slow to begin camp, the Cubs’ closer feels like he’s finding his way at the right time.
The 32-year-old right-hander had his best outing of the spring his last time out, striking out three batters and feels he’s right on track with two weeks until the regular season begins.
“I think early on in spring training I talked about finding my keys and finding my timing and all those kinds of things, which is part of spring training,” Kimbrel said. “I really enjoy the fact that it’s six weeks long, because it kind of gives you the time to get in, get working on things, and then settle things in. That’s kind of what I’ve felt like I’ve been able to do so far.
“In my first couple outings, numbers-wise, obviously going out, giving up runs and hits, all those kinds of things don’t look good. I wasn’t too worried about it. I was more worried about how I physically felt. How the ball was coming out of my hand and what I could do in my next outing to make it a little bit better each time out. And it’s worked out so far. I didn’t want to get upset about my first couple and then go out there and try to throw as hard as I can. That wouldn’t have been productive.”
The idea of ramping up is something that pitchers use during spring training to increase their workload as the season gets closer. Mixed into Kimbrel’s success and failure in a Cubs uniform is the reality that he’s never had that time.
During his first season with the Cubs, he was thrown into the middle of a playoff race in 2019. Due to the pandemic, the shortened 60-game season and abbreviated summer camp didn’t help in that regard either.
But working on things and gradually building before the season begins has been a welcomed sight for Kimbrel in his third season with the Cubs.
“I feel very comfortable where I am right now less than two weeks away from the season starting,” he said. “I think a lot of us felt rushed to get back and ready to go in the short period of time. I don’t have that feeling this year, I feel nice and relaxed. … I think you’re seeing that from a lot of players.”
One of the major reasons for Kimbrel’s struggles that he and the Cubs identified last season was with his mechanics. Kimbrel self-admittedly fell into bad habits with his delivery, leading to his rough start where he allowed seven earned runs over his first four appearances.
After his demotion from the closer’s role, Kimbrel found himself and allowed only one run the rest of the season and returned to being one of the best relievers in the majors with a 0.00 ERA, 13 strikeouts and no walks in eight appearances in September.
”Sometimes when you do struggle, you learn a lot about yourself,” manager David Ross said. ”I think last year was Craig learning a lot about himself.”
During last season’s struggles and early this spring, Kimbrel’s fastball has leaked out over the plate resembling more of a two-seam fastball and not a true four-seam fastball. When Kimbrel’s fastball is at its best, it rises in the zone with late life. In his most recent outing, it did just that, touching 98 mph on the gun in the process.
“When you’re trying to throw a four-seam, it’s not good to throw a two-seam,” Kimbrel said with a smile. “It’s just all about it’s all about angles. It’s all about angles and getting the hand and everything in the position it needs to be. If you don’t land and fire your hips at the right time, there’s so many things within mechanics and everyone’s different. But personally, it’s just getting my hand staying over the rubber and not trying to rush down the mound and throw it by the guy before I even hit the ground. It’s the little things.”