Atlanta Braves closer Craig Kimbrel is having another fine year, after inking a $42 million extension in the offseason. But as reliably brilliant as he’s been, he has had to work a bit harder than before. After averaging 16.2 pitches per inning for the first four seasons of his career, he’s averaging 18.2 pitches per inning this year.
The reason that he’s throwing more pitches may be related to the fact that his fastball velocity is down (the average was 96.9 mph last year, 96.2 this year), and perhaps as a result, he’s giving up more foul balls (27.6% of strikes were fouled off last year, 30.0% this year).
Kimbrel still has an elite strikeout rate, and strikeouts are well known for driving up pitch counts — you can get a groundout on one pitch, but you can’t get a strikeout until you get strike three. But 18 pitches per inning is too high for comfort. There are only 10 closers this year above that mark, and most of them have really struggled:
Kenley Jansen is an interesting name on that list; like Kimbrel, he has long been one of the top strikeout-getters in baseball and a dominant closer. But this year he has struggled early in the year (despite throwing harder than before).
Relievers are really the only pitchers who can afford to throw 18 pitches in an inning; at that rate, a starter would hit 100 pitches midway through the 6th inning, which forces managers to burn through a lot of relievers. There are 22 pitchers in the NL who have thrown at least 200 pitches and have a Pitches/IP over 18. None are primarily starting pitchers. (The starters with the highest P/IP this year are Zack Wheeler and Tim Lincecum, at 17.8 and 17.7.)
Kimbrel is by far the most successful of them all; for the most part, it is a sorry bunch. It’s a fair bet that Craig Kimbrel will continue to dominate in 2014, but he will do better if he starts keeping better company.
Alex Remington is a product manager at The Washington Post and a writer for the Hardball Times. He has written for Fangraphs and Yahoo Sports, and currently manages Braves Journal.