Recently at Pitcher List, we have been releasing a bunch of dynasty and prospect content because we know that side of fantasy baseball never rests! With the Holiday season now upon us, we thought it would be fun to put together a dynasty series based on the 12 days of Christmas. We begin with the first day, “a partridge in a pear tree.” Now it may be a stretch, but partridges are short-tailed birds…and RP Craig Kimbrel is a closer (short innings, poses like a bird on the mound). See the connection? Let’s begin!
Let’s just get this out of the way. Closers are weird. They’re a volatile asset in dynasty formats. They almost never yield an appropriate return on investment in comparison to their perceived value. In saves+holds leagues, their true value is even less than in standard 5×5 leagues. But holy moly, when you get a good one, it is so hard to let go.
The curious case of current free agent RP Craig Kimbrel is one that I have mulled about in my head for the last few weeks. One of the most dominant relievers over the last few years is reportedly seeking a record-breaking deal and will likely get an AAV of $20mil when all is said and done. But should the dynasty owner expect the same type of eye-popping statistical numbers to match the numbers tied to his paychecks?
The ageist in you and me suggests no. Kimbrel is entering his age 31 season. He’s likely to break down because that’s what people do. Hell, I’m 33 and I bend over to tie a shoe and I’m liable to throw out my back. Yet when researching league saves leaders over the last 4 seasons, for every Edwin Diaz and Jeurys Familia, there’s a Fernando Rodney and a Wade Davis. For every Alex Colome and Brad Boxberger, there’s been a Greg Holland and a Mark Melancon. In other words, when it comes to closing out games, talent is talent irrespective of age. Given Kimbrel’s dominance over the last 7 years, a string wherein he’s never had less than 31 saves, we can reasonably assume he has at least 2 good seasons left in him to provide baseline production.
But wait, you say, “What about his injury history, Adam?” Chill. I’m getting there. Since 2011, a year where he threw 77 IP, his workload has been pretty consistent, averaging 62 innings per season. 2016 was a career low 53 innings pitched when he actually beat the 3-6 week projection for being out due to a knee injury and still managed 31 saves. Outside of that hiccup, Kimbrel has been relatively reliable and clean injury wise. There are no reports of arm fatigue, shoulder injuries, and elbow soreness. Again, all signs point to a sustained reliability on performance.
“Yeah, but he is still shaky with his underlying metrics, right?” Well, kinda. Last year, by most measures, was rough. He had a higher ERA (2.74) and FIP (3.13) all while posting a 3 year low K/9 (13.9) and an alarmingly high 4.5 BB/9 leading to a 26.3% K-BB rate. The signal through the noise also becomes a little clearer when spotting the highest Z-Contact % (80.4) that Kimbrel posted since 2013. This suggests that his stuff didn’t play as well in the zone which could be a sign of a slight decline. His .216 BABIP even speaks to the FIP’s belief that he probably should have gotten touched up a little more than he had.
By all accounts, his 2018 season largely mirrored his 2016 season. I’ll be honest though. I’m a little confused by what happened. His usage rates remained the same. The velocity on his fastball sat relatively within career norms (96.5 – 98 MPH). For some reason, however, his fastball seemed a little more touched up than as expected in the past. If I were to venture a guess by looking at his Statcast data, it looks like he was overemphasizing his pitches to be down and away against right hander’s, but they just weren’t biting enough. Pitchers as elite as Kimbrel tend to adjust and tinker to get ahead of these problems. In fact, Kimbrel has exemplified that as you can see the rebound from 2016 into 2017. However, it’s certainly worth monitoring.
So, what do we do with Kimbrel moving ahead? How do we value a closer? Even if they are elite but aging? In my opinion, he’s still at or near the top 100 dynasty assets and definitively the second best reliever behind Diaz with only Houston Astros RP Roberto Osuna threatening to drop him from a top 2 spot among dynasty closers. Kimbrel is about as stable as a reliever can be, and I’m buying this gift if there’s a discount anywhere to be had.
(Graphic by Justin Paradis)