Cubs' Kimbrel believes he has last year's problems figured out

                                                                                                                                                                                                   
  • Craig Kimbrel is expected to be back in the closer role for the Cubs this season, after losing the job last year. He talked about how he learned from his struggles of 2020.

    Craig Kimbrel is expected to be back in the closer role for the Cubs this season, after losing the job last year. He talked about how he learned from his struggles of 2020. AP File Photo/2019

 
 
Updated 2/23/2021 8:34 PM

After spending the 2010s as arguably the best closer in baseball, no one would expect Craig Kimbrel to be demoted.

But when it happened last season, Kimbrel says he took it in stride.

 

"Last year I pitched myself into the situation that I was it and did my best to pitch myself back," he said in a Zoom call with reporters from spring training in Mesa, Ariz. "But we had a guy doing that job."

That guy was Jeremy Jeffress, who is not currently on the Cubs roster. Jeffress is still an unsigned free agent, so anything is possible, but Kimbrel figures to be back as the closer this season.

Cubs manager David Ross goes back a long way with Kimbrel. They were teammates in Atlanta during Kimbrel's first three major league seasons from 2010-13. Ross admitted he was concerned last year about the change in roles.

"(It was) something I definitely worried about because one, I have a relationship with Craig and two, knowing what kind of character he has and resume he has," Ross said. "The character came out in those moments when I called down to that bullpen and didn't call his number and he continued to work and get better.

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"I talked to my bullpen coach Chris Young about, 'When I called for JJ, how did Craig react? When I called Ro Wick?' Every time I asked him, it was like, 'Not even a flinch, no head down, continue to work, no pouting, no show of anger or disappointment.'"

Kimbrel had some significant issues at the start of the shortened season, but they were relatively brief. He struggled with control when the season began and gave up runs in each of his first four outings. Then he had a blown save, the only one last season, at Cincinnati on Aug. 29.

In those five games, Kimbrel gave up 7 earned runs in 3⅓ innings pitched, with 7 hits and 8 walks.

Outside of those five games, Kimbrel didn't give up a run in 12 innings pitched, with 24 strikeouts. In the month of September, he took the mound eight times and allowed just 3 baserunners, on three singles.

Whatever the problems were, they disappeared. So Kimbrel is headed into spring training with plenty of confidence.

"Going into this offseason, it wasn't, 'I need to get stronger, I need to get faster, I need to work on my new pitch,'" he said. "It really was, 'OK, what did I do last year to get back to being successful and how do I stay there?'

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"So one of my main focuses this winter was just trying to stay mechanically where I was toward the end of last year. I know if I can physically get to where I need to be, everything else will come together. I feel like I'm ready to go. I feel it was a good offseason and I'm headed in the right direction."

Kimbrel figured out the mechanical issues were primarily related to arm placement, which can be analyzed easily with all the cameras and special equipment teams have on hand.

"A lot of times in the past, it was 'OK, we need to find the feel and once we find the feel, everything else will come,'" Kimbrel said. "Now we have the technology to tell us, 'Well that pitch did what you wanted it to do. Even thought it might not have felt well, that's where you need to be.'

"Our arm can drop a little bit and it might feel great, but the hitter can see it better or you're not spinning it as well. So to me, it's really just paying attention to where my arm placement is and how the ball's coming out of my hand. That's what I focused on last year that kind of helped me turn everything around and it's what I've been focusing on all winter."

• Twitter: @McGrawDHBulls

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