Puppies barely survive bullpen collapse, but have a problem with Craig Kimbrel

Thanks in part to Jon Lester’s five no-innings and Anthony Rizzo’s third home run in the young season, the Cubs on Monday night were able to squeeze in an 8-7 victory over the Reds in Cincinnati (scorecard). When Joey Votto put on Albert Almora’s glove to finish it, though, it felt like a loss to the Cubs.

That’s because the Cubs led this 7-0 going to the bottom of the sixth and 8-1 going to the bottom of the seventh. However, a methodical and collaborative merger of the bullpen, of the “central reactor” variety, endangered the bullpen until it is unknown. At one point in the seventh inning, the Cubs’ chances of winning this one reached 99.1 percent. However, the seven Chicago relievers combined to allow eight runs and 16 base runners in four innings. After closer Craig Kimbrel walked Tyler Stephenson in the ninth inning, the Reds he actually had a 54.8 percent chance of winning.

Speaking of Kimbrel, the main criminal in this case, please stick to his pitching line for the night:

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Hello, but you were credited with holding! Of his 34 launches, only 13 went on strike. The Reds’ hitters didn’t hit any of the 15 balls Kimbrel broke. Truth be told, things could have been even worse, minus some quality frame from catcher Willson Contreras. Here is a visual representation of Kimbrel’s complete and utter lack of command and control:

That’s a disaster occurrence in every sense of the term, and unfortunately for the Cubs it’s more or less in keeping with Kimbrel’s recent history. At its peak, it was on the short list of the most dominant closers in baseball history, but that peak is fading ever further in the past. Kimbrel showed signs of command erosion during the 2018 season for the Red Sox, even though he ended up with a large number overall. During the last four months of the 2018 regular season, Kimbrel walked with 25 hitters in 37 1/3 innings. In the 2018 postseason for Boston, he walked eight other hitters in 10 2/3 innings (while also having a 5.91 ERA).

Kimbrel became a free agent that winter and found that the market was not particularly accommodating. He didn’t land with the Cubs until after the 2019 season began, and didn’t make his first appearance until the end of June. You probably know what happened next: Kimbrel in 20 2/3 innings for the Cubs had a 6.53 ERA and walked 12 batters.

Sure, you can rule out that 2019 performance to some extent due to its late start, and maybe you can say the same about its ghastly debut in 2020. However, the prevailing reality is that Kimbrel hasn’t been able to put baseball where he wants in more two years. Now 32, he has a few miles on his arm by the standards of contemporary relievers with electrical gear. There is a danger in reacting to a single outing, especially a first outing of the season that takes place four months after what should have happened. However, Kimbrel on Monday night looked too much like a pitcher who didn’t belong on a major league mound.

The Cubs, who already have few quality relievers and committed to Kimbrel until at least 2021, had better hopes that that was not the case.