Nineteen MLB closers recorded 30 or more saves in 2011, but only one stood less than six feet tall.
That pitcher was Craig Kimbrel, the 5’11”, 205-pound closer for the Atlanta Braves, who led all closing pitchers in appearances, innings pitched and, most impressively, strikeouts. He recorded 127 Ks, 28 more than runner-up Carlos Marmol of the Chicago Cubs, who pitched just three innings less than Kimbrel.
The role of the closing pitcher is one of the most demanding in baseball. Beyond possessing enough stuff to overpower hitters when the game is on the line, a closer must bring a certain degree of intensity (José Valverde of the Detroit Tigers), or even insanity (Brian Wilson of the San Francisco Giants), every time he toes the rubber.
In terms of physical makeup, today’s large-framed closing pitchers are some of the most imposing figures in the game. Eight of the 19 closers with 30-plus saves last season were listed at 6’4” or taller.
But size is not a limiting factor for Kimbrel who, despite his thick build, is able to run his fastball in the mid 90s, occasionally even a bit higher, thanks in part to a compact delivery in which he keeps his arms and hands close to his body while limiting movement throughout his wind-up. As the good folks at The Hardball Times note, “It’s much easier to coordinate all the moving parts in your delivery if everything is compact and together.”[youtube video=”cyM9WiOIO3w” /]
Upon further analysis, The Hardball Times concludes: “At foot plant, Kimbrel has yet to get his arm into a loaded position, but due to his excellent scapula load and the precise timing with which this load is done, Kimbrel’s arm is accelerated forward with tremendous force and produces velocity that defies his size.”
Scapula load refers to the action in which Kimbrel brings his throwing elbow behind his back while pinching his shoulder blades together (at the :09 mark in the above video), enabling him to generate power from the muscles in his upper back and chest. This, combined with the momentum toward home plate he produces with his legs, is what produces his extraordinary velocity.
Precise timing is key, but Kimbrel must also be clean and efficient in every movement he makes, from the moment he initiates his delivery all the way through his release—which is why the 2011 NL Rookie of the Year performs exercises in the off-season designed to correct muscular imbalances and eliminate energy leaks, either of which can disrupt his transfer of power when pitching.
According to Dallas Terrell, head strength and speed coach at D1-Huntsville, Kimbrel’s off-season training home, performing a Lateral Lunge/Slide Push-Out combo (see top video) helps Kimbrell prevent injuries to his weak side—the kind of injuries, Terrell says, “that come from one side of the body being stronger than the other.”
To help eliminate energy leaks through his core, Kimbrel performs a tri-set series of exercises, including a Farmer’s Carry, Bear Crawl and Crab Walk, three dynamic core movements that have a direct correlation to pitching. Terrell says of these exercises, “[Kimbrel] has to be able to hold his body in a particular position while his limbs are doing something else.”
Head over to STACK TV for more of Kimbrel’s major league workout.