It’s the ninth inning, and Red Sox closer Craig Kimbrel stares in for the sign. He is scrunched down low, his arms dangling out like a high school kid trying to put his arm around a first date at the movies.
Some say his pose reminds them of a karate stance, or a bad Joe Cocker imitation, or in the words of Red Sox poet laureate Dick Flavin, “just like a crab.” Kimbrel once said it looks like he’s bear-hugging something.
But whatever it is, it’s starting to catch on in Red Sox Nation. After a rocky start this year, Kimbrel is starting to look like the pitcher who has the most saves in major league baseball since 2011. Can all-out “Kimbreling” by Sox fans be far behind?
Kimbreling, for those that have never tried it, is the art of imitating the closer’s bizarre stance and steely stare.
It became popular in Atlanta, where the media compared it to Tebowing. Kimbreling even appeared in Philadelphia in 2014, with a whole section of fans behind home plate imitating the closer’s setup before every pitch. Kimbrel said he didn’t even notice them.
But now, in the Sox clubhouse, Kimbrel doesn’t want to talk about Kimbreling.
“I’ve got to go stretch,” he says, abruptly fleeing the clubhouse with as much giddy-up as his trademark fastball. His red beard almost has a trail on it, like that meteor over Portland.
But Kimbrel talked about it in spring training to the Globe’s Nick Cafardo.
“I’ve heard everything, like I’m flexing, or I’m doing it to be cocky and how I keep setting my arm up farther and farther out,” he said then. “It’s just something that feels right to me while I’m picking up my signs. That’s about it, but people have made such a big deal out of it, which is fine. I guess it looks funny to people, but it’s normal for me.”
Last year, while pitching for the Padres, Kimbrel told the San Diego Union-Tribune that he started Kimbreling in 2010 when he had biceps tendinitis and it became painful for him to keep his arm behind his back.
Kimbrel may not be getting as much attention as Red Sox batters lately, but he has been all but unhittable for the last month. In his last 10 appearances (since April 25), opponents are 1 for 29 against him. He is 7 for 7 in save opportunities in that span, and is tied for the league lead with 12 saves.
Grasping for explanations
His teammates have different theories on the success of Kimbreling.
Sox ace David Price calls it “the intimidation factor.” But he adds that there’s also the diversion factor. Eyeballs lock on to the extended low-hanging arm and not the ball in the glove.
“There’s no telling what a hitter’s looking at,” says Price. “He’s in that set position, it might lock their eyes a little bit lower than normal.”
Price says it helps that Kimbrel looks mean on the mound.
“The angry stare,” he says. “Angry Craig. It works for him. That’s just not me. That’s him. Everybody has their own things that they do differently, and that’s his thing.”
At least one opposing player, Oakland A’s outfielder Josh Reddick, says Kimbreling doesn’t intimidate him at all. And he doesn’t agree with Price’s theory that the eyes focus on the dangling arm.
“It’s just a pre-release point,” says Reddick. “That doesn’t bother me. He throws 98 — that’s what is intimidating.”
Price says he wouldn’t be surprised if Little Leaguers around New England are already doing the Kimbrel. And he hopes fans at Fenway start Kimbreling.
“It would be cool if everybody here did it,” he says.
Other Sox players say they’ve never seen anything like it.
“I don’t know how he does it,” says pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez. “If I did that, I think I would throw the ball away. He gets punch-outs like that. He feels comfortable with his mechanics.”
Reliever Tommy Layne has some fun with the subject.
“He’s got a funky start-up doesn’t he?” says Layne. “How do I describe it and be polite in a family newspaper? I think that’s his lock-in point, like, hey, I’m-getting-ready-to-throw-some-serious-gas-at-you point. That’s his setup position.
“Maybe it has to do with making him appear bigger on the mound. He’s a little guy, you know.’’
Kimbrel is listed at 6 feet but appears shorter, especially when he’s leaning in for the sign.
Layne has one more theory on the dangling arm.
“Maybe he’s keeping that hot 98-100-mile arm away from his body because it’s too hot,” he says.
Jackie Bradley Jr. says it’s a different look from center field but it’s no big deal.
“It’s like he has his arm in an angular form,” says Bradley. “I think it’s just his routine.’’
Third baseman Travis Shaw is an admirer.
“It’s unique, I know that,” says Shaw. “It’s his thing and it works. When a guy throws 100, he can do whatever he wants.”
Catcher Ryan Hanigan says it serves a purpose.
“It gets him locked in,” says Hanigan. “It’s good. He’s always done it.”
It’s still working
Kimbrel did not pitch this way in high school or college, according to coach Randy Putman of Wallace State in Hanceville, Ala.
It was Putman who had Kimbrel throw long toss from his knees after the pitcher broke his foot in a sheetrock accident after high school. Kimbrel went from a mid-80s fastball to a 94-mile-an-hour heater.
Putman thinks Kimbrel possibly started using his unusual stance in Double A ball in the Braves farm system.
“We talked a little bit about it when he was with Atlanta, and he just said, ‘If it works, don’t try to fix it,’ ” says Putman. “He says ‘Coach, it’s working, so I’m going to continue to do it.’ ”
Putman says Kimbrel was a megastar in Atlanta from 2010-14.
“I told him one time, ‘I think you could be the mayor of Atlanta,’ because he’s so popular,” says Putman. “It was almost like hero worship when he was with the Braves.”
Kimbrel spent last season with San Diego, and fans quickly picked up on what he called his “wing thing.”
But at Fenway Park, fans who loved the exuberance of Koji Uehara and the nastiness of Jonathan Papelbon are just starting to appreciate the four-time All-Star closer.
“I like it. I think it’s intimidating,” says Brian Alley. “You can’t see where the pitch is coming from.”
Bob Mack of Weston says Kimbreling is bizarre.
“He’s got his arm hung out like he’s holding up a post or something,” says Mack. “I think it’s weird.’’
Mack said Kimbreling might catch on in Boston, but warned that there is a lot more pressure here than in Atlanta or San Diego.
“Other ballparks don’t have as much tension and scrutiny as we do,” he says.
Matt O’Connell of Austin, Texas, says Kimbreling is coming.
“We need to start embracing it,” he says. “I think it will start happening.”