The ball snapped out of the closer’s right hand, dived hard toward the bottom of the strike zone as it reached the plate, and was harmlessly tapped for a routine ground ball to third base.
Three nights after his season had reached an early low point with his first blown save as a Dodger, Craig Kimbrel bounced back Thursday by retiring the New York Mets in order in the ninth inning of a 2-0 win.
“It was a very clean, efficient outing,” manager Dave Roberts said.
And it started with a well-executed curveball — a positive sign for a pitcher who has been trying to recalibrate his delivery amid a forgettable start to the season.
On Monday night, when Kimbrel gave up two runs to blow a ninth-inning lead against the Pittsburgh Pirates, it was an inability to command the curveball that cost him most.
With one on and one out in that game, he tried throwing a breaking ball to the outside corner but instead spiked it a few feet in front of the plate. The wild pitch put the Pirates’ two-run inning in motion. It was also a symptom of Kimbrel’s biggest early season problem.
Kimbrel had become too “rotational” in his delivery, both he and Roberts said this week, a mechanical malfunction that caused him to struggle with command of his fastball and the shape of his curveball.
For a while, it didn’t cost him. In his first nine appearances, Kimbrel gave up just one run. And despite some close calls in early May, he’d converted his first 10 save opportunities.
It finally caught up to him in attempt No. 11. After allowing the two runs (one earned) against the Pirates on Monday, Kimbrel’s season ERA had ballooned to 4.50. He’d given up runs in five of seven outings.
And while no save situation arose in the final two games of that series, Roberts had decided to give Kimbrel a break anyway, wanting the 34-year-old veteran — who entered this season on the heels of a disappointing finish to 2021 — to focus on cleaning up his delivery after an inconsistent two months.
“Having a great player and veteran player … you have to give them some leash to kind of trust that what they’ve done, they’ve figured some things out, and you don’t want to come in too hot,” Roberts said. “But I think we’ve seen enough and we’ve built enough trust with Craig to kind of now offer our thoughts. And he’s been receptive.”
Kimbrel described the process as simply trying to get back “on line,” noting it’s something he’s had to fine-tune several times over his career.
Roberts said coaches have shown Kimbrel past video of himself — “some propaganda to get things right,” Roberts called it — when his delivery has been more synced up directionally toward the plate.
“When my line gets off, I try to correct,” Kimbrel said. “My big thing is staying back, on my backside. And sometimes that turns into my direction going too far toward the side. So just paying attention to that, get back on line, on top of it, and everything else follows.”
Roberts said part of the problem might stem from Kimbrel’s closed stance..
“To try to come out of that, he gets really rotational,” Roberts said. “Then the breaking ball gets sweepy, the fastball is inconsistent.”
Neither pitch has been as productive as normal for Kimbrel, who ranks eighth all-time with 383 saves. The fastball, which is averaging under 96 mph for the first time in his career, has yielded a .281 batting average against and four extra-base hits. A curveball that was once almost unhittable now has a .188 batting average against, the highest mark of Kimbrel’s career, and is generating fewer swings and misses.
Kimbrel’s underlying numbers hint at some unluckiness, as well.
His fielding independent pitching (a stat similar to ERA that isolates a pitcher’s performance from defense and batted ball luck) is a decent 2.52. He ranks among the top 15% of all major leaguers in predictive metrics such as expected ERA and batting average. He has also navigated a somewhat irregular pitching schedule, twice going 13 days without a save opportunity.
Still, standing in front of his locker Thursday afternoon, Kimbrel acknowledged he hasn’t been good enough so far.
“I need to be more consistent,” he said. “That’s what I’m working on.”
The Dodgers are hoping his impressive outing later that night is a sign his turnaround is underway.
“[We’re] just trying to get him back to where he needs to be in his delivery,” Roberts said. “He’ll be ready to go. We need him.”