When the Phillies announced the signing of Craig Kimbrel over the off-season many Phillies fans first thought of the long-time Atlanta Brave was probably the time the fans behind the plate mocked his set up routine in a game at Citizens Bank Park.
The second thought was probably, how will this 35-year-old, 14-year veteran whose better days were behind him help the 2023 Phillies get back to the World Series?
I don’t think anyone could have imagined that Kimbrel would be an integral part of this team and bullpen. You can venture to say that Craig Kimbrel has been the MVP of the 2023 Phillies.
The 14-year veteran started his career with the rivaled Atlanta Braves in 2010. He was not the closer when he came up and was given just a taste of the big leagues playing in just 21 games, but he exploded onto the scene. He ended that debut season with a 0.44 era, striking out 40 batters in just 20.1 innings. The next year, the Braves made him the full time closer and he didn’t make them regret it. He held that spot for the next four years and was a thorn in every opposing teams side as he shortened the game essentially wiping out any chance the other team could come back in the ninth. In every year from 2011-2014 he led the league in saves averaging 46.25 saves a year. He pitched 268.1 innings over those four years striking out 436 batters. In those same four years he made the All-Star game each year, got votes for CY Young and MVP, and won the Rookie of the Year in 2011. At his peak in 2012 he was striking batters out at a rate of 50.2%. An absurd number that still stands as his career high.
The Braves traded him to the Padres in 2015 and he continued to have solid numbers, but the Padres were not competitive and sold high on him to the Boston Red Sox for the 2016 season. He spent the next three years in Boston, with his overall numbers dipping slightly but still an elite level closer. In 2017 he almost matched his best year with a strikeout rate of 49.6% but the other years he was in the 39% range. His walk rate also increased from the 6-9% range while in Atlanta to the 12-13% range in Boston. He made the All-Star game in each of his three seasons and helped bring a World Series championship to Boston in 2018.
The next four years he bounced around, playing on three teams (Cubs, White Sox, and Dodgers). From 2019-2022 he never had more than 24 saves in a season. His strikeout rate dipped all the way to 27.7% in 2022 with the Dodgers and his walk rate hovered around 10% all four years. Needless to say, his stock was down and the idea that he would walk into a new bullpen and be the bonafide closer were gone.
The Phillies signed him for one year and $10 million to come in and be a back-end bullpen arm. The closer roll was seemingly going to be either Seranthony Dominguez or Jose Alvarado. But as the season began, Dominquez struggled, and Alvarado was put on the IL. Kimbrel was called upon to step into a role he was all too familiar with. Well, he has stepped into it and has no intention of giving it up.
Kimbrel was named to his ninth All-Star game this past month and deservingly so. He has nailed down the ninth inning for the Phillies, converting 18/19 save opportunities. He has a 3.26 era and a whip of .979. He is striking out 35% of batters faced and walk rate is at 9.7%. The strikeout and walk rate are hovering around the numbers we’ve seen over the last 4-5 years from him but his batting average against (.170) and babip (.234) are at the lower range of his career. According to baseballsavant.com, he is in the 89th percentile in wiff rate increasing by 15% in comparison to 2022. He is in the first percentile in hard hit balls against him this year in comparison to the 11th percentile in 2022. In recent years he has exclusively featured just his four-seam fastball and the knuckle curveball. Both which have been outstanding, hovering around 96 mph and getting as high as 100 mph on the fastball and 86 mph on the knuckle curve reaching as high as 90 mph. It is astonishing to see how he has adjusted his repertoire to account for this stage of his career. He has found something this year that we haven’t seen from him in the recent past and it’s working well. Outside of his pitching repertoire, his experience as a 14-year vet and a World Series champion will pay dividends for this Phillies team. They will lean on him for his leadership and his winning acumen.
As we approach the tail end of the season and the Phillies prepare to hopefully make a deep run into the playoffs, it will be interesting to see how the Phillies utilize Kimbrel. Keeping him fresh for the playoffs is important but not using him puts the win at risk and the Phillies need as many wins as they can get. There is little doubt that he’s been the MVP of the 2023 Phillies so far and they are hoping to ride his resurgence as a dominant closer into the playoffs.