Cubs barely survive a bullpen meltdown, but they have a Craig Kimbrel problem

Thanks in part to Jon Lester’s five no-hit innings and Anthony Rizzo’s third homer of the young season, the Cubs on Monday night were able to wring out an 8-7 win over the Reds in Cincinnati (box score). By the time Joey Votto lined into Albert Almora’s glove to end it, though, it felt a bit like a Cubs loss. 

That’s because the Cubs led this one 7-0 going into the bottom of the sixth and 8-1 going into the bottom of the seventh. However, a methodical and collaborative bullpen meltdown — of the “core reactor” variety — imperiled this one until that final uncertain out. At one point in the seventh inning, the Cubs’ chances of winning this one reached 99.1 percent. Whittling away at that figure, however, were the seven Chicago relievers who combined to permit eight runs and 16 baserunners in four innings. After closer Craig Kimbrel walked Tyler Stephenson in the ninth, the Reds actually had a 54.8 percent chance of winning. 

Speaking of Kimbrel — the main offender in this one — please subject yourself to his pitching line for the evening: 

Hey, but he got credited with the hold! Of his 34 pitches, just 13 went for strikes. Reds batters didn’t swing at any of the 15 breaking balls that Kimbrel threw. Truth be told, things might have been even worse minus some quality framing from catcher Willson Contreras. Here’s a visual rendering of Kimbrel’s complete and utter lack of command and control: 

That’s a disaster appearance in every sense of the term, and unfortunately for the Cubs it’s roughly in keeping with Kimbrel’s recent history. At his peak, he was on the short list of the most dominant closers in baseball history, but that peak is fading deeper and deeper into the past. Kimbrel showed signs of eroding command during the 2018 season for the Red Sox, even though he wound up with strong numbers overall. Over the final four months of the 2018 regular season, Kimbrel walked 25 batters in 37 1/3 innings. In the 2018 postseason for Boston, he walked another eight batters in 10 2/3 innings (while also putting up a 5.91 ERA). 

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Kimbrel became a free agent that winter and found the market not particularly accommodating. He didn’t land with the Cubs until after the 2019 season had begun, and he didn’t make his first appearance for them until late June. You likely know what happened next: Kimbrel in 20 2/3 innings for the Cubs authored an ERA of 6.53 and walked 12 batters. 

Sure, you can dismiss that 2019 performance to an extent because of his late start, and maybe you can say the same about his gruesome 2020 debut. The prevailing reality, though, is that Kimbrel hasn’t been able to put the baseball where he wants to in more than two years. He’s now 32, and he’s got some miles on his arm by the standards of contemporary relievers with electric stuff. There’s a hazard in reacting to a single outing — especially a first outing of the season that’s taking place four months after it should have. Kimbrel on Monday night, though, looked all too much like a pitcher who didn’t belong on a major-league mound. 

The Cubs, already thin on quality relievers and committed to Kimbrel through at least 2021, had better hope that’s not the case.  

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