Mike DiNovo / USA TODAY Sports

Lights Out: A Craig Kimbrel Production

Craig Kimbrel was recognized for his dominance Friday when the league named him the American League Reliever of the Month for May.

Kimbrel has taken the rest of baseball by storm in the closer’s role so far this season, and has shown he’s fully capable of delivering dominating performance after dominating performance in what we haven’t seen in a Red Sox' “power-pitcher” reliever do in quite some time.

The seven-year veteran closer allowed just one hit and one walk in 12 appearances spanning 12 and 2/3 innings in May. The hard-throwing right-hander earned a win, struck out 25 and recorded seven saves in as many opportunities. Kimbrel has posted a 2-0 record with a 0.75 ERA, 15 saves along with 45 strikeouts this season.

It’s funny how things turn out, last season Kimbrel struggled many times in the ninth inning more importantly with the game on the line, with walks (30 in 2016) and being inconsistent with his fastball location at times. Kimbrel also had a career-worst 3.40 ERA last season, which is highly uncharacteristic of the flame-throwing right hander. Prior to last season, Kimbrel led the majors in saves since 2011 (224) with the Braves and Padres, this sudden success we’ve seen so far this season shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone.

Some of these numbers that Kimbrel has put up early on this season have been something out of a video game:

  • Opponents are 0 for their last 30 with one walk and 18 strikeouts against Kimbrel -- his longest such streak since holding hitters to a 0-for-28 during the 2012 season.
  • Kimbrel has retired 62 of the past 67 batters he's faced, including 42 of his past 45. Right-handed hitters are 0-for-45 with three walks against him, which is the longest hitless stretch for any pitcher within one season since Joel Pineiro (0-for-51) in 2001.
  • Kimbrel hasn’t allowed a hit against right-handed hitters in 24 innings this season.
  • Recently snapped a streak of 65 batters faced without issuing a walk (after posting a career-worst 5.1 walks per nine last season, as I mentioned).

Kimbrel has worked on not shying away from his fastball deep into counts this season. In 2016, you would see Kimbrel get a little “cute” deep in counts and try to trick hitters with his slider but sometimes it would backfire, as hitters would put his breaking ball in play. When in reality, the hitter couldn’t originally keep up with his fastball, so a breaking ball is what we would call a gift in this game. What you’ve see this year is a pitcher who throws a 97-99 mph fastball, now consistently throws it for strikes and not just early in the count..but definitely way more of a put-away pitch then it was last season.

Kimbrel has made noise this season when you think about dominant relievers in Major League Baseball, and Red Sox manager chimed in and has a lot of confidence in his closer:

"Nothing is ever given or automatic, but [Kimbrel is] pretty darn close right now," Red Sox manager John Farrell said. "It's efficient. It's two wipeout pitches. It's fun to see."

It’s great to see Kimbrel have a great start to the season, this bullpen had so many thing going against them going into 2017. The subtractions of losing righties Koji Uehara and Junichi Tazawa were tough as both pitchers were the backbone of this bullpen since the Red Sox won the World Series back in 2013. Not to mention key contributors in Carson Smith and newly acquired reliever Tyler Thornberg have yet to throw any innings this season.

Let's give credit where credit is due. The Red Sox pitching staff has been excellent so far this season from top to bottom. Kimbrel and ace lefty Chris Sale have been the main highlights so far for this team, but don’t forget about the role players like Joe Kelly, Heath Hembree, along with even Triple-A stud Brian Johnson (complete game shutout) who have made matters a whole lot easier for this struggling offense.

Hopefully this recognition Kimbrel has gotten from the league will put some type of spark into this team's offense in terms of urgency. Also, if the offensive production does it’s job and it leads to the possibility of having a position player take home an award for the month of June and not have to continue to rely on outstanding pitching that has been on display so far in the first two months of the season, that would be lovely.


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