Fredi González knows Craig Kimbrel isn’t the same pitcher he used to be.

When González was the manager of the Atlanta Braves over a decade ago, a young Kimbrel was on the ascent. The right-hander once threw 98 mph with his fastball, overpowering hitters. But that was when Kimbrel was a fresh-faced 23-year-old, headed for the NL Rookie of the Year Award in 2011 and about to lead the National League in saves four years running.

“I don’t think we’re going to see the Kimbrel of 98 mph,” González said.

Nor does Baltimore need the Kimbrel of 98 mph.

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Now Kimbrel is 35, with 420 career saves. He earned his most recent one Sunday against the Milwaukee Brewers, shutting the door in the ninth inning — working around two singles with three strikeouts. He did it with an elusive knuckle curve and fastball that had its life back, proving Kimbrel’s premonition correct: There was no need to worry.

Entering Sunday, Kimbrel’s fastball velocity to begin the season was 92.8 mph, down by about 3 mph compared to what the four-seamer averaged the year before. The nine-time All-Star wasn’t worried for several reasons.

One, nearly every year of his career has started this way, including last season’s jump from 94.9 mph in April to 96.4 mph in May. It’s colder out. He’s still ramping up. But he’s also not concerned because his knuckle curve is playing as well as it ever has — if not better.

“His command is a lot better,” González said. “His breaking ball is a lot better.”

That knuckle curve has covered for the fact Kimbrel has opened the year throwing markedly lower speeds (down from an average of 95.8 mph in 2023). And, with his fastball velocity reaching a high of 96.6 mph Sunday, the coupling of that offering and his knuckle curve could prove to be the distinguishing factor for Baltimore in save situations.

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Baltimore Orioles pitcher Craig Kimbrel (46) throws to first base during game three of a series against the Milwaukee Brewers at Camden Yards on April 14, 2024. The Orioles beat the Brewers, 6-4, to avoid getting swept in the series. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

“I know my velocity is definitely down a little bit, but my spin’s still playing well,” said Kimbrel, who expected to gain velocity as the season unfolded. “I’ve still got life on my pitches. I mean, right now I’m just out there pitching, trying to miss bats still, no matter what your velocity is. I mean, I’m getting guys out with spin.”

That he is. The usage rate on his knuckle curve entering Sunday was 40.5% — higher than in 2022 and 2023 — and batters haven’t recorded a hit against the pitch. The spin rate on Kimbrel’s knuckle curve Sunday was 2,636 rpm, which would be the highest of his career if he can maintain it.

In addition, Kimbrel saw more horizontal movement on his knuckle curve entering Sunday, with three extra inches of break on average (13 inches vs. 10 inches last year).

“All the shapes look really good,” catcher Adley Rutschman said. “Hitters look uncomfortable in the box.”

Of the 21 batters Kimbrel has faced in six innings this season, he has struck out four on his knuckle curve and seven with his fastball. In his first appearance, a bloop single and two stolen bases led to a blown save, although the Orioles still won the game in walk-off fashion. Kimbrel didn’t allow a baserunner in his next four outings.

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Even Sunday, when two batters reached via singles, Kimbrel reared back to fire in the fastest pitches of his season thus far.

Kimbrel threw his fastest pitches of the season Sunday, which was also the warmest day on which the Orioles have played. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

“I’ll take a quote from Craig: ‘As things start to heat up, the fastball gets a little better,’” said right-hander Corbin Burnes, who also experienced the best fastball velocity of his year on what was the warmest game of the season yet.

Even with Kimbrel’s fastball velocity down to 92.8 mph in his first five innings, his spin rate on the pitch (2,340 rpm) was comparable to Kimbrel’s best in 2018 (a year in which he finished with 42 saves). Generally, the higher the spin rate, the more movement the pitch will have. So, even without some of the velocity that used to overwhelm a hitter, Kimbrel is deceptive.

“I have confidence in each one of his pitches, so sometimes we’re trying to just go to hitters’ weaknesses,” Rutschman said, before adding that, if they need to, the battery can rely on one of Kimbrel’s knuckle curve or fastball almost exclusively in an outing if either of the two offerings isn’t as crisp. “His pitches are just that good.”

Replacing closer Félix Bautista — who is recovering from Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery — is an impossible task. With a splitter that is about 10 mph slower than his 100 mph fastball, Bautista burst onto the scene as an elite reliever.

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But Kimbrel was signed this offseason as a stopgap who had the potential to cover significant innings for Baltimore throughout the season and into the playoffs. And his experience — two saves behind Billy Wagner for seventh on the all-time list — goes a long way in finding a way to record outs even as he waited for his fastball velocity to return.

“I’m just making pitches,” Kimbrel said. “That’s all I can worry about.”

Andy Kostka is an Orioles beat writer for The Baltimore Banner. He previously covered the Orioles for The Baltimore Sun. Kostka graduated from the University of Maryland and grew up in Rockville.

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