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
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.
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
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
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.
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
“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
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.
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.