Craig Kimbrel ready to build on late-season success with a ‘normal’ spring training
In the strangest of spring trainings, Cubs closer Craig Kimbrel found something he’s been in search of: normality.
After consecutive years of irregular spring trainings, 2021 provides Kimbrel with a full, potentially uninterrupted camp to get prepared for a complete, 162-game regular season.
“I think it might be a bit odd that it might be normal after the last two years,” Kimbrel admitted with a slight chuckle.
Kimbrel and the Cubs are hopeful that spring training will give him the time and opportunity to build on his stellar September when he had a 0.00 ERA, 0.409 WHIP, 13 strikeouts and 0 walks in 7.1 innings of work. To do that, Kimbrel spent the offseason emphasizing his mechanics in hopes of picking up where he left off.
“I felt like I’m ready to go,” Kimbrel said. “I felt like it was a good offseason.”
Besides the improved September numbers, Kimbrel and the Cubs take pride and joy in the moxie he showed in still contributing to the team, even when things weren’t going the way he would have liked.
“The character came out in those moments when I called down to the bullpen and didn’t call his number,” David Ross said. “He continued to work and get better.”
That meant not showing frustration. Last season, when a save opportunity arose, the bullpen phone rang and Ross was calling for Jeremy Jeffress or Rowan Wick or someone else in the bullpen, there was no pushback from Kimbrel.
“The guy just continued to be a good teammate and to work to get better,” Ross said. “If there’s anything that speaks volumes to last year and the character, the man that he is, I think it’s those moments for me of when he’s able to take adversity, take moments where he’s not succeeding with the resume and always being the guy that is called upon in the biggest moments and he wasn’t that guy.”
Instead, he worked on his craft and stressed mechanics, something he’ll be doing again this season. To do that, Kimbrel is relying on the Cubs’ pitching lab. Kimbrel pointed to the advancements in technology that have been used to help pitchers improve.
“A lot of times in the past it was, ‘OK, we need to find the feel and then once we find the feel, everything else will come,’” Kimbrel said.
Now, though, Kimbrel and the rest of the Cubs pitching staff can look at the data and pinpoint previously unseen strengths and weaknesses. If he throws a bullpen and his knuckle-curve feels off, the data can tell him whether his feel was accurate or not.
“Our bodies can trick us over time,” Kimbrel said. “Our arm can drop a little bit and it might feel great, but the hitter can see it better, it’s not spinning as well.”
That’s part of the issue Kimbrel struggled with at the onset of the 2020 season. In July and August, hitters were able to pick up on his pitches and were sitting on his curveball and feasting on his fastball. Of the 7 hits he allowed in those two months, 6 of them came off his fastball and hitters had an average exit velocity of 97.95 mph off of that pitch.
So, Kimbrel made sure to work on his mechanics to improve his pitch tunneling to deceive hitters more.
“It’s just paying attention to where my arm placement is and how the ball is coming out of my hand,” Kimbrel said. “That’s what I focused on last year that kinda helped me turn everything around and it’s what I’ve been focusing on all winter. [It] was just making sure my body and my hand placement is where it needs to be and once we get into games and adrenaline starts, it’ll be where it needs to be. That’s about it.”
And if he can do that, he’s more than confident that he can be the lockdown closer the Cubs need as they look to repeat as NL Central champions.
“Coming into this year, my thoughts are: be where I was towards the end of last year if not try to be better and go out there and do my job,” Kimbrel said. “I’ve stood on the mound and closed out a lot of games, so I don’t think the mental aspect of going out there and doing it is gonna be any different.”