Dodgers closer Craig Kimbrel tries to clean up his mechanics

The ball snapped out of the closer’s right hand, dove hard toward the bottom of the hitting zone when it hit the plate, and was tapped harmlessly to third base for a routine ground ball.

Three nights after his season hit an early low with his first botched save as a Dodger, Craig Kimbrel rebounded Thursday by retiring the New York Mets in the ninth inning with a 2-0 win in the order.

“It was a very clean, efficient outing,” said manager Dave Roberts.

And it started with a well-executed curveball – a positive sign for a pitcher trying to recalibrate his performance amid a memorable start to the season.

When Kimbrel gave up two runs Monday night to take a ninth-inning lead against the Pittsburgh Pirates, it was his inability to master the curveball that cost him the most.

With an on and an out that game, he attempted to throw a breaking ball into the outside corner but instead goaded it a few yards from the plate. The wild field got the Pirates’ two-run inning moving. It was also a symptom of Kimbrel’s biggest preseason problem.

Kimbrel had become too “rotating” in his delivery, both he and Roberts said this week, a mechanical malfunction that caused him to struggle with control of his fastball and the shape of his curveball.

For a time it cost him nothing. In his first nine appearances, Kimbrel gave up only one run. And despite a few narrow chances in early May, he had converted his first 10 defenses.

It finally caught up with him in attempt #11. After giving up both heats (one earned) against the Pirates on Monday, Kimbrel’s season ERA was up to 4.50. He had given up runs in five of seven games.

And although there was no rescue situation in the last two games of that series, Roberts had decided to give Kimbrel a break anyway because he wanted the 34-year veteran – who entered this season after a disappointing end to 2021 – to focus was able to clean up its delivery after an inconsistent two months.

“When you have a great player and you have a veteran player … you have to give them some leash to trust that what they did, they figured out some things and you don’t want to get too heated,” Roberts said. “But I think we’ve seen enough and built enough trust in Craig to share our thoughts now. And he was receptive.”

Kimbrel described the process as a simple attempt to get back “online,” and found he had to fine-tune it several times throughout his career.

Roberts said trainers had shown Kimbrel previous videos of himself – “some propaganda to make things right,” Roberts called it – when his delivery toward the plate was more synchronized.

“If my line goes out, I try to correct,” Kimbrel said. “My big thing is to stay behind, on my butt. And sometimes that turns my way and goes too far to the side. So just pay attention, get back online, on top, and everything else follows.”

Roberts said part of the problem may stem from Kimbrel’s closed stance.

“To try to get out of it, he’s really turning,” Roberts said. “Then the breaking ball will sweep, the fastball is inconsistent.”

For Kimbrel, who ranks eighth all-time with 383 saves, none of the pitches have been as productive as usual. The fastball, who is averaging under 96 mph for the first time in his career, has a batting average of .281 against and four Extra base hits scored. A curveball that was once nearly unbeatable now has a batting average of .188, the highest mark in Kimbrel’s career, and generates fewer swings and misses.

Kimbrel’s underlying numbers also suggest some bad luck.

His fielding independent pitching (a stat similar to ERA that isolates a pitcher’s performance from defense and batted ball luck) is a decent 2.52. He’s in the top 15% of all major leagues when it comes to predictive metrics like expected ERA and batting average. He’s also managed a somewhat erratic pitching schedule, twice going 13 days without a chance to save.

As Kimbrel stood in front of his locker on Thursday afternoon, he still admitted that he hadn’t been good enough so far.

“I have to be more consistent,” he says. “I’m working on that.”

The Dodgers are hoping his impressive performance later tonight is a sign his turnaround is underway.

“[We’re] I’m just trying to get him back to where he needs to be in his delivery,” Roberts said. “He’ll be ready to go. We need him.” Dodgers closer Craig Kimbrel tries to clean up his mechanics

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