by Matthew de Marte – April 8th, 2018
This winter, I was fortunate enough to have one of the coolest experiences of my life; I got to catch a bullpen for Red Sox all-star closer Craig Kimbrel. As a division 3 catcher, I had never caught anything close to his caliber of pitcher before. I had caught a bullpen in eighth grade once for a reliever who was with the Rays, along with other professional and division one pitchers including my co-founder and brother Jonathan who I have caught a ton. However, none of these experiences compared to catching someone with the skill set of Kimbrel.
I do not want this article to be about every pitch he threw, but rather what I learned from this experience of seeing how one of the very best in the game goes about his business. Often when you hear a hitter or pitcher talk about their craft on MLB Network or another platform, their interview is too short for players and coaches to learn substantial information from it. So, learning from Kimbrel by just watching and experiencing a workday for him was incredibly eye-opening.
The first thing that stood out about him was the laser focus he brought. With every warm-up throw and every pitch during his bullpen, there was a look in his eye that showed he meant business. You could tell every little thing he did had a purpose. Even the time he took between pitches seemed to mimic a game-like scenario where if he did not execute on a pitch, he would take a deep breath and recoup and focus on executing the next pitch. Paired with the unbreakable focus that he displayed, Kimbrell’s between-pitch routine proved why he is one of the best pitchers in baseball. When he did not execute, sometimes he would snap his fingers, or reach his arm out like he had just released a pitch and do a mini follow through like he threw a fastball. I do not know why he did these exactly, but I do know that they are cues to remind him of something in his mechanics. This is another example of the importance for each pitcher to understand what cues resonate with their mechanics and help them through each checkpoint in their delivery. Having these reset routines allow for quicker adjustments and a better understanding of yourself as a pitcher.
The way Kimbrel executed his pitches was eye-opening as well. Every pitch had a purpose. A question I received a lot after I caught him was, did he hit every spot? No, he did not hit every spot. In fact, he did not hit most spots, which is okay. The majority of pitchers in the world, including professional pitchers, do not hit spots consistently. There was a clear intent behind every pitch and what he was trying to do. With his curveball, Kimbrel did an excellent job of executing what he wanted to do. It was clear he was focusing on throwing strike-ball curveballs, which are pitches that appear as a strike and will break out of the zone and are therefore more enticing to a hitter to chase. Every curveball he threw was thrown in this manner and executed very well. The chart below shows Kimbrel’s whiff rates on curveballs in 2017.
Knowing he can get swings and misses over 40% of the time, depending on where he throws his curveball, he should work to throw it there, instead of locating it for a strike, and this is exactly what he did. This displays a tremendous understanding of his own pitch arsenal and shows the importance of training and practice replicating in-game scenarios. He did the same thing with his fastball.
Kimbrel is armed with a fastball that in 2017 averaged 98.3 MPH and 2428 RPMs. He was the first pitcher I have caught who consistently practiced throwing high fastballs during his bullpen. Why is that? He has had incredible success up in the zone, and above it with his heater. Look at the following graphic.
Kimbrel had tremendous success getting swings and misses with his fastball up in the zone. This does not appear to be by accident, rather by design. This brings me to one of my biggest takeaways from this experience. If you are a pitcher, who elevates his fastball, or wants to elevate because it has good spin, velocity, or whatever the reason, you must practice it. Get comfortable throwing your fastball high, and train your high fastball command.
After Kimbrel threw 10-12 pitches, he worked a few simulated batters. A hitter stood in and tracked pitches for him to experience throwing with a batter in the box. In the sequences he threw, you could tell he was always working on different things. Whether it was high fastballs when he was ahead in the count, or throwing breaking balls in fastball counts, there was a purpose behind every pitch. Working on different sequences to prepare himself to throw anything at any time. Being able to do that with one’s arsenal is so important, and it makes it difficult for hitters to sit on one pitch or be comfortable. So in your bullpens, prepare yourself to throw every pitch in every count. Be prepared to throw off-speed pitches when you are behind in the count, so the sequences you work are unpredictable, and hitters cannot just sit on fastballs. If one of the best relievers in baseball prepares for this, you should too.
Every experience in life comes with the potential for new knowledge to be obtained. Fortunately, catching a pitcher of Kimbrel’s quality produced lots of learning moments. I was immediately thrilled by the chance to share this new knowledge. I believe watching and learning from the best players and what makes them the way they are is the best way to learn about baseball. I hope sharing this experience can create a learning moment for those reading this!