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Craig Kimbrel: fastball artist

Has the pitching staff struck again with another relief pitcher?

Toronto Blue Jays v Philadelphia Phillies Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

Having baseball on the background of your house is one of life’s simple pleasures. There are those who live and breathe with each pitch, which is great, and there are those who like to have a game on in the background while they complete some other more important household task (i.e. scrolling through TikTok), which is equally as great. The pitch clock has changed the way that has been digested this year as you might be doing something , your internal baseball clock thinking it’s one inning when you look up and realize that several innings have zoomed by with nary a blip on your radar.

We’re not here to discuss whether or not that is a good thing, but it brings to mind something that happened not long ago. I’m currently getting ready to move homes, which means there is a frantic amount of packing happening right now. In the midst of boxes and paper and packing tape, there remains baseball on the TV. When the announcers get their voices up, attention must be paid of course, but for the most part, the game passes by relatively harmlessly. The other night, though, something happened, a mundane pitch that caught my attention and caused me to pause all the packing that was underway.

That’s a 98 mile an hour fastball from Craig Kimbrel, which is definitely something. Against someone like Santiago Espinal, a solid player but hardly one to fear when he’s at the plate, it could have been an illusion, something Kimbrel could not do again. Once he retired Espinal, up came Bo Bichette, someone much more fearsome with a bat in his hands. What does Kimbrel do?

That’s 98 on his hands, something Bichette is clearly not ready for. Hitters have a pretty good sense of what a pitcher throws velocity-wise when they go up to the plate, as well as an incredible sense of just exactly what these velocities look like. They know 95 miles per hour when they see it. When Bichette goes to the plate thinking that is velocity band Kimbrel will be living in, only to see him add a few extra ticks, you see the kind of swing you saw in that at bat. Of course, the location helped Kimbrel a great deal on both pitches. If he is throwing that hard in those spots, hitters will struggle. If he doesn’t, well, they’re going to put good swings on it.

The point here is not about Kimbrel’s location, it’s about the velocity. It’s something we haven’t seen from him in a while and something that could be a rather significant game changer for him and for the team.

As pitchers age, they lose a little steam from their arsenal. It’s natural. Throwing a baseball isn’t something the body was built to do, so over time, there will be wear and tear. Kimbrel was once the best closer in the game thanks to his ability to rush a baseball up to the plate at very high velocities, but that ability has diminished over time.

It’s something that was discussed when the signing of Kimbrel was announced, how his drop in velocity would end up translating to success as he learned to adapt to not only a newer, slower arsenal, but also the potential for a newer role in the bullpen than he was used to. Presently, it seems that he has not only adapted to whatever role Rob Thomson has in mind for him that particular game, he has found something to give his fastball a little extra life these days.

After hitting a low point of having an average fastball around 93 miles per hour, Kimbrel came within a whisker of hitting 98 on the gun, an addition of five miles per hour, something that is somewhat underheard of this late in a career. For a pitcher like Kimbrel that relies on only two pitches, having one of them diminish would be a problem, while having both of them diminish could end a career. For now, it looks like he has turned the clock back a little bit in terms of pitch velocity.

Now, thanks to pitchers trying to get a little extra something on the pitch over the past few years, any kind of gain in fastball velocity is met with a stern side eye. The proliferation of foreign substances will do that to when a guy who has demonstrated an ability to improve or an uptick in stuff, an attack on character to most times is unfounded. The underlying numbers on Kimbrel’s fastball aren’t exactly screaming something nefarious though. There’s a bit more spin, but nothing that should sound any alarms. Batters are actually hitting the ball rather hard, the pitch having the highest exit velocity it’s ever registered in Kimbrel’s career off of the fastball. In fact, if you wanted to look for something more negative to say, hitters should be hitting a lot better than they are....and they’re still hitting the ball rather well off of Kimbrel. It simply looks like the team has made some kind of adjustment, either through grip or through his mechanics, that has allowed him to get a little more giddy-up on the pitch, something he needs at this stage in his career.

There are still trust issues with Kimbrel, as there are with any reliever. Adding some velocity isn’t going to change that. What it does do is help lessen the nervousness one might have when he toes the rubber. If this bump of velocity is real and spectacular, something that can be maintained through the summer months, the team is in that much better position to get through those dog days and remain in the playoff hunt.

Something to listen for in the background of your life....