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Falling into ‘bad habits’ may be behind Craig Kimbrel’s rough start in 2020

The Cubs’ closer has allowed six earned runs in only 1 2⁄3 innings this season. “It’s no secret that I’ve struggled my first couple of outings,” Kimbrel said.

“I got myself into some bad habits, mechanically, and just wasn’t finishing the way I should,” Cubs closer Craig Kimbrel said.
“I got myself into some bad habits, mechanically, and just wasn’t finishing the way I should,” Cubs closer Craig Kimbrel said.
Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

What’s wrong with Craig Kimbrel?

That’s the $45 million question people have wondered about as the Cubs actively try to fix their struggling closer and get him back on track.

Kimbrel’s start to the shortened 2020 season hasn’t been what he or the Cubs have wanted thus far. In three appearances, the Cubs’ closer has allowed six runs on four hits with four walks and one strikeout in 1-2/3 innings.

While the discussion about Kimbrel’s recent struggles from the coaching staff and front office has been about his mechanics, the right-hander believes a change in his habits has contributed to the problem.

“It’s a little bit of both,” Kimbrel said. “I got myself into some bad habits, mechanically, and just wasn’t finishing the way I should. I was showing the ball more than I should. I actually felt like [Tuesday], I did some things a little better. But when it comes down to it, you still have to execute a certain pitch in a certain location at certain times. And I wasn’t able to do that.

“You leave fastballs over the middle, it’s going to get hit. Doesn’t really matter how hard it is or how good your stuff is so you know, as much as it is mechanics at times. Obviously, location is a big part of it, if you don’t want to give up hard contact.”

Kimbrel doesn’t know when the change in his mechanics happened, but it might be part of his 2019 struggles when he allowed a career-high nine home runs. He noted that the lack of execution on his curveball and deception out of his hand has allowed opposing teams to sit on his fastball, leading to a lot of hard contact against him.

Opposing hitters have averaged 100.2 mph exit velocity against Kimbrel this season — a big difference from the 90 mph career exit velocity on his pitches.

“This game is definitely a humbling game for one,” pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said. “Even the best of the best struggle and battle with things. . . . If you’re not right, and you’re not right, the minute you hit the mound, then you know things can go awry pretty quick.”

The quick turn still comes as a surprise considering Kimbrel’s Hall of Fame-caliber track record. He ranks 13th all-time with 346 -career saves and is MLB’s active save leader.

Manager David Ross has shown faith in his closer despite turning to right-hander Rowan Wick in two of the team’s last three save opportunities. Ross has continued to give Kimbrel the ball as he works through the early struggles, which he feels will help him get out of the rut.

“It’s no secret that I’ve struggled my first couple of outings,” Kimbrel said. “I started out having problems finding the plate. . . . Then having a hard time missing bats. But the communication between the two of us has been great. It’s the reason that we’re going to work through this. He still has trust in me. He knows what I can do. . . . Me knowing he has that trust in me helps out a lot.

“I’m not going out there saying, ‘I think I can get beat today. I don’t want to be out here.’ By no means am I anywhere close to that. If anything, it’s more frustration towards myself, putting myself in the spot that I’m in, putting my team in the spot that I have. Having to ask guys to get up and throw more based on performance. All those things are things I’m most frustrated with. But the confidence of going out there, I’m still confident. Still know I can go there and get outs. The bottom line is going out there and doing it.”