Craig Kimbrel’s Mechanics: Dominant, Disastrous, or Both?

Written by on April 11, 2013 in Case Studies, Pitching Methodology - 9 Comments
Craig Kimbrel Save

Kimbrel picks up a save in 2011

I came across an article recently from the website Bleacher Report that resurfaced some thoughts I had a couple years ago.  The article asks the question, “Is Craig Kimbrel of the Atlanta Braves the Most Intimidating Closer in the MLB?”  With just his numbers in front of me, I would venture to say YES without a doubt.  Statistically, he is absolutely destroying his competition each year.    If you like to be amazed, you can check out his accolades and stats here.  But, I don’t want to talk about what’s he’s done so far, I want to comment on how long he can sustain his dominance over MLB hitters.

At just 24 years old, he’s a gift for Major League Baseball.  Craig Kimbrel is an admirable success story who has risen through the ranks of the Braves system and has captured the hearts of baseball fans over the last few years. His popularity grows each time he runs to the mound as the stadium blasts “Welcome to the Jungle”.  Fire erupts throughout the stadium, and as he records the final out, his legacy grows.  Honestly, I didn’t know much about Kimbrel until this article, but immediately afterwards, I was eager to learn more about the next great closer.

The following line from the Bleacher Report article truly caught my attention, “National League hitters will be fearing this guy for the next decade. He’s got everything you need to be the best.”

How can we measure this statement?  A decade is a long period of time, and any pitcher looking to remain at the top of their craft must have a foundation of essential factors to remain elite.  When I think of a closer who exhibits longevity, dominance, and consistency, I think of the greatest closer in the history of baseball, Mariano Rivera.  And what is everything you need?  Vague statement, but I’ll tell you one crucial element you need to be the best:  The mechanical pattern that allows the body to stay strong, and compete year in and year out.  Does Craig Kimbrel exhibit a healthy pattern?  Looking at his mechanics, and accounting for the amount of force he generates, I would conclude he continually places a higher level of direct stress on the elbow joint which places him at risk of suffering an injury sooner than later.  

A “CLOSER” LOOK AT CRAIG KIMBREL

When I break down Craig Kimbrel’s mechanics, I see two interdependent problems that directly impact the support system of his delivery.

Problem #1:  Stride Alignment

Craig Kimbrel Mechanics and stride alignment

 The first problem in Kimbrel’s mechanics occurs as a product of a closed stride.  He immediately begins to close his body off as he moves down the mound towards the target and when his front foot makes contact with the mound, he is anywhere from 8-12 inches off ideal stride alignment.   When creating the graphic above and below, I watched numerous clips from Kimbrel from 2011 to 2012 to ensure his alignment was consistently closed  and accurate for this article.  The image above shows Kimbrel in a bullpen setting and a game situation to illustrate a factual representation of the alignment.

Why is this bad?  This leads to problem #2.

Problem #2:  Increased stress on the elbow joint at the “late cocking” phase.

Craig Kimbrel Closer

The closed off stride alignment will more than likely force a pitcher to become more shoulder dominated into the throw and less trunk dominated.   The horizontal rotation of the shoulders in Kimbrel’s delivery directly attributes to increased stress on the elbow joint as Kimbrel accelerates into his throw.

Watch Will Fox, Baseball Rebellion’s leading researcher and expert on arm care, analyze the stress on Kimbrel’s elbow below.

CRAIG KIMBREL’S MECHANIC’S EXPLAINED BY WILL FOX

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Now, after you just watched the video above, which pattern does your son, player, or yourself resemble?  Everyday I work to ensure all of my students are knowledgable about how their body and arm should work together and provide a training regimen to help maintain the consistent pattern.  Any pitcher must value the continual practice of his mechanics to ensure the likelihood of performance on the field and decrease his chance of potential injury.

HEALTHY VS. UNHEALTHY PATTERN SEEN IN A YOUNG PITCHER

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 WE HAVE SEEN THIS BEFORE

Over the last decade we have seen a cycle of MLB closers who explode onto the scene with triple digit fastballs, nasty stuff, long beards, fancy intro music, and quirky personalities.  They burst onto the scene like a supernova, infatuate fans and the media with their heroic efforts, and then….they are gone.  It’s sad but it’s the truth.  Closers have the unique opportunity to build an aura of invincibility.  They sit and watch their opponent, contemplating their final move, and with 3 outs left, they can leave every ounce of energy out on the field.   The closer is exciting, necessary, and if elite, will be sure to keep fans in the seats for the entire game!   Baseball is in dire need for fans to stay invested throughout the game.  Baseball games are long, sometimes boring, but if a fan knows they can possibly see Greg Kimbrel run in for the save, they may stick around.  And sticking around means more beer & food sales.

It’s hard to see a once dominate athlete/closer slowly fade into retirement.  We never want to see the “great one’s” resemble anything close to average, it ruins the mystique.

Eric Gagne Closer, mechanics

Gagne coming into his signature “game over” routine

Eric Gagne

When I was drafted in 2004, the Dodgers flew my family and I to LA to visit Dodger Stadium and watch a game.  You can imagine my excitement at 21 years old, signing a professional contract in Dodger Stadium with my career in front of me.  But honestly, the most excitement from that night, came in the top of the 9th inning when Eric Gagne ( 2003 Cy Young Award Winner) jogged in from left field to lock down the save.  The stadium exploded when the speakers played “Welcome to the Jungle” (Kimbrel’s current entrance music).  The scoreboard flashed “GAME OVER”, and in typical fashion that year, Gagne did his job and got the save.  He was a monster hit in LA, converting a MLB record of 84 consecutive save opportunities and largely the biggest sports figure outside of Kobe Bryant.  But, shortly afterwards, he went down with an elbow injury in 2005 and his career was never the same.

SEE THE EXCITEMENT

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Brian Wilson mechanics, brian wilson beard, brian wilson closerBrian Wilson

“FearThe Beard”.  Need I say more.  Wilson backed it up with his performances on the mound, but he became a larger than life symbol for the Giants and baseball when he took on his whole unique persona.  He played a major role in the Giants regular season and post season runs from 2008 to 2011, including recording the final out in the Giants World Series clinching win over the Rangers in 2010. Wilson underwent his second tommy john surgery in 2012, and as of today remains a free agent.  His future in baseball remains unknown.

SEA CAPTAIN WILSON

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Gagne and Wilson are two examples of closers who had dramatic impacts on the game baseball.  They were valuable assets to their respective teams, helped fuel higher TV and media attention, and created an entire marketing campaign based off a blend of their personality and performance.   Just imagine how much the Dodgers and Giants could have capitalized on the heroics if their respective closers were still available for the 9th.  Craig Kimbrel may have already surpassed both Gagne and Wilson in terms of statistical value, but can he do it over the course of a 19 year career like Mariano Rivera?

With the numbers Kimbrel has amassed over the last few seasons, it would be hard for anyone to suggest a change in his delivery.  This situation occurs often in professional baseball, when an organization may be aware of a possible injury risk, but is unwilling to make a change because the athlete is performing at a high level.  The Braves may or may not be aware of the negative forces Kimbrel is placing on his body but at the end of the day, the Braves must ask themselves, how long do they want to see Kimbrel running out of the bullpen for the save?  I’m sure the answer is for well over a decade.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Think about the legacy Mariano Rivera is going to leave on the game of baseball.  His legacy has been defined from years of consistency, World Series rings, and most importantly, baseball’s All-Time  Saves Leader.   Chas always mentions “the greatest ability of a player is availability”, and Rivera certainly has been available.   When I look at Rivera’s mechanics I see a pattern that has endured hundreds of innings, pressure situations, age, fatigue, and stress.  Rivera didn’t build his legacy out of 98mph fastballs and a beard.  In fact, the man throws one pitch.  A pitch that hitters are still trying to figure out.  

Years ago the Yankees found a talent, designated him as the closer, and yet again produced one of the greatest baseball players in history.  How will Kimbrel’s legacy carry out?  We all would love to see his fastball baffle hitters for the next decade.  But will the health of his elbow allow him to sustain longevity?  We shall see…

Wanted to thank both Chas and Will for their efforts in making this article possible.

Justin “Duff” Orenduff – Leader of the Baseball Pitching Rebellion & Will Fox – Lead researcher in injury prevention and arm health.

About the Author

Justin was a Freshman All-American at GW University and then transferred to VCU where he earned all American Honors. In the summer of 2003 Justin was selected to the USA National Team where he pitched alongside Jared Weaver and Justin Verlander. He was then drafted 33rd overall by the LA Dodgers. After retiring from the Dodgers in 2009, Justin returned to VCU where he earned his B.S. in Business Management. Justin has dedicated himself to educating the masses about the pitfalls and dangers of misguided and misinformed training techniques and create efficient, sustainable, and healthy deliveries for all ages. He authors Baseball Rebellions Pitching Blog and is the lead pitching instructor at ITS Baseball, Baseball Rebellions research facility.

9 Comments on "Craig Kimbrel’s Mechanics: Dominant, Disastrous, or Both?"

  1. Owen April 12, 2013 at 8:35 am · Reply

    Justin, great article and breakdown of Kimbrel’s mechanics. I wouldn’t worry too much about what the yokels on Bleacher Report say, however. Most of their writers are untrained hacks.

    • Justin Orenduff April 12, 2013 at 6:33 pm · Reply

      Owen,

      Thanks for the comment, I appreciate it. Ha, I’m not worried about those guys, I actually like some of their stuff.

  2. Sam April 24, 2013 at 9:41 pm · Reply

    I’ve been working with a guy from Iowa who has been teaching me this style of throwing for 5 years, your not the only people who know about these throwing mechanics and drills.

    • Justin Orenduff April 24, 2013 at 11:17 pm · Reply

      Sam,

      That’s awesome you have been receiving quality instruction. Congratulations! What’s his name?

      Thanks,

      Duff

  3. Sam April 25, 2013 at 8:16 pm · Reply

    He goes by the name, “Goody.” He’s out of Marshalltown, Iowa. He runs a place called Game7. He videos and radars damn near everything I do, I’m surprised he doesn’t run the gun on me when I sprint to the restroom haha!

  4. KC August 14, 2013 at 3:03 am · Reply

    You guys are kidding me? You spend a whole article to a guy who’s dominating. If he only last 2 years, he still will be considered the Bo Jackson of pitching. Dude, Baseball is quirky. I be he does last a decade. Also, the beard is going to start throwing for the Doyers. He is going to be the set up for Jansen. Sick. What the next thing your going to tell me is Jansen isn’t for real.

    Look at Aroldis, that’s looks pretty violent which is fantastic!!
    Take care,
    I’m just opining.
    KC

    • Justin Orenduff August 16, 2013 at 12:57 am · Reply

      KC,

      Actually we are not kidding you at all. The article didn’t seem to be presented as a joke from what I recall. Craig Kimbrel has dominated just like many pitchers who dominate before they are faced with a serious injury.

      Why do you think he will last a decade? Fill free to let all of our readers learn from your expertise.

      I happen to love Brian Wilson, not necessarily his mechanics but I think he’s great for baseball just like Craig Kimbrel, which is also mentioned in the article. Listen, I don’t want anyone to have an injury, but we aim to shed light on glaring issues. I love the fact that you mention Aroldis because you mention he’s violent…and why is he violent? Because he’s explosive? What the difference between him and Kimbrel?

      We look forward to your answers.

      -Justin

  5. KC August 16, 2013 at 1:41 am · Reply

    Hey Justin-
    Thanks for replying. I love a good debate and actually I have no expertise. Just a fan. I believe that Kimbrell not being the prototypical 6-5 giant has to tweak his mechanics to generate more velocity. Where as Aroldis (I’m a die-hard Reds fan) is a freak at 6-7. I guess the reason I take offense is that my son who is coming into his Sophmore year in high school is also not big. He’s 5-9 and has to overcome the “eye test” until he throws his first pitch at 84-87. He has been scouted all summer by some prominent PAC 12 schools. Maybe it’s just a Dad venting a bit cause we are always fighting against being that huge pitcher. He’s still not done growing, but he’s probably only going to end up 6-0 to 6-1. But actually my son does have good mechanics and is still generating good velocity.
    It was a good article. I was just throwing in my 2 cents.
    Take care Bud!

    • Justin Orenduff August 16, 2013 at 9:59 am · Reply

      KC,

      You’re correct. Smaller guys must be able to recruit and generate more out of their mechanical pattern to match the velocity output of a stereotypical 6’4 pitcher. I routinely see undersized pitchers creating more powerful patterns naturally with no instruction compared to larger guys who can get away with using less.

      Aroldis happens to be a large guy with a powerful pattern. He may have the best thoracic extension I have seen.

      Glad you enjoyed the article and I hope your son gets the opportunity to pitch at the next level!

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