Patrick Gorski/USA Today Sports

Time for Red Sox to use Craig Kimbrel more aggressively

Alex Reimer
April 24, 2018 - 3:26 pm

The Red Sox’ two-game losing skid serves as a reminder they won’t bludgeon opponents all season long. That means they will play close games that require manager Alex Cora to make tactful bullpen decisions. 

So far, Craig Kimbrel hasn’t thrown a single pitch before the ninth inning in eight appearances. On two occasions, he’s appeared in extra frames. That could be a problem going forward. The traditional closer role is antiquated, because common sense suggests it’s silly for teams to save their best relievers until the final inning. Sometimes, the most crucial stretch of the game comes in an earlier inning. It makes sense to deploy your shutdown bullpen arm then. The Brewers have started following this model, using lefty Josh Hader –– who strikes out 19.3 batters per nine innings –– as early as the fourth and late as the eighth. 

John Farrell often reserved Kimbrel for the ninth. In 2016 and 2017, Kimbrel only appeared 11 times in the eighth, throwing 5.2 innings. 

It was theorized that Alex Cora may view the closer’s role differently, given his experience with the Astros –– one of the more analytically inclined organizations in baseball. But so far, Cora hasn’t shown an appetite towards using Kimbrel in an unconventional role. In Sunday’s loss 4-1 to the A’s, Cora left David Price on the mound in the eighth with the score tied at 1 and two men on. He wound up surrendering a three-home run to Khris Davis, while Kimbrel, who only threw one inning on the road trip, sat in the bullpen.

"I felt with the conviction he (Price) pitched and the way he dominated Jed -- right now Jed is probably the best hitter in the league -- so I decided to leave him there," Cora told reporters after the game, per MassLive. "He left a cutter over the plate and Davis put a good swing on it. ... We've got Smith but the way he got (Lowrie) out, you could see his fastball was good enough. The pitch to Jed, that was probably the one that made me make the decision.”

On the “Bradfo Sho” earlier this month, Kimbrel suggested he prefers to close the game out. "If I'm coming in the game, I'm coming in trying to finish the game," he said. "So if I do come in the eighth inning I have full expectations to go back out there for the ninth and close it out.”

Kimbrel’s apparent trepidation about appearing in games earlier than the ninth is understandable. It’s the way he’s been used throughout his entire career. But Kimbrel, who’s struck out an average of 14.7 batters per nine innings throughout his career, is the Red Sox’ most dominant pitcher. He must be used where the team needs him most, which isn’t always at the end of a game.

In a tight AL East race between the Red Sox and Yankees, the way Kimbrel is used could determine the difference. In two of the Red Sox’ four losses –– Opening Day and Sunday –– lesser or more fatigued pitchers have blown it in the eighth while Kimbrel watched. 

That should change. 

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