MILWAUKEE — Dustin Pedroia watched Jonathan Papelbon close out games with power and Koji Uehara do it with finesse. Both helped the Red Sox win World Series.
Now, in Craig Kimbrel, Pedroia sees a closer capable of both. The righthander has a fastball that sits comfortably at 98-99 m.p.h. along with a curveball that he’s not afraid to use at any point in the count.
“He’s always been good, a guy who is an All-Star most years and one of the best at what he does,” Pedroia said. “But this year, it’s overpowering. He comes in and punches everybody out. His stuff is overwhelming.”
The statistics reflect that. Kimbrel leads the American League with 10 saves and has struck out 26 of the 50 batters he has faced. Opponents are 5 of 47 (.106) against Kimbrel with a .373 OPS.
In his last 11 appearances, Kimbrel has stuck out 21 of the 35 hitters he has faced and thrown 106 of 151 pitches for strikes (70 percent). He goes into Tuesday’s series opener against the Milwaukee Brewers having retired 12 batters in a row.
This is the best Kimbrel has pitched for the Red Sox since they obtained him from the San Diego Padres prior to the 2016 season.
“Without a doubt,” manager John Farrell said. “Last year was a strong year for him, but maybe not to the caliber he’s had previous. There were some things he was working through.
“[This season] has far surpassed anything that he did last year for us.”
It has been timely, too. The Red Sox significantly changed the look of their bullpen this season with the loss of Uehara, Junichi Tazawa, and Brad Ziegler to free agency. They also lost setup man Tyler Thornburg to a shoulder injury in spring training.
Kimbrel’s dominance has allowed Farrell to fit players into roles working back from the ninth inning. The bullpen, a jumble at the start of the season, has become one of the team’s strengths largely because of Kimbrel.
“He’s allowed us the ability to mix and match more readily,” Farrell said. “He’s allowed some younger guys to step up and assume a role that they might not be accustomed to because they know he’s there behind him as a shut-down closer.
“He gives an awful lot of confidence to that bullpen group, knowing you have that guy standing next to you.”
It started in spring training, Kimbrel working diligently on correcting the mechanical issues that affected him at times last season. His footwork occasionally threw his body out of alignment, which led to a career-worst 5.1 walks per nine innings and bouts of inconsistency.
“Being in the bullpen, one bad game can ruin your year statistically,” said Kimbrel. “I’ve never thought the numbers carry the weight of the entire year. There were a few of those games last year.”
Kimbrel allowed two or more runs six times and often struggled in non-save situations. Midseason knee surgery also kept him out three weeks.
“There were things I needed to work on,” Kimbrel said. “That’s been the case throughout my career, but especially last season. I wasn’t myself at times.
“Now, I feel like when I can command my fastball, it opens up throwing the breaking ball. I don’t have to be so pinpoint with it.”
Beyond mechanics and adjustments is a more simple explanation for Kimbrel’s success: familiarity.
He was traded from the Atlanta Braves to the San Diego Padres just before the start of the 2015 season, then sent to the Red Sox seven months later. This is the first time since 2014 that Kimbrel has had the same manager, pitching coach, and teammates for consecutive years.
He’s one of the guys, not the new guy.
“I think, for any player, comfort is a huge component in how guys perform,” said Farrell. “There’s more of a known commodity. Last year was the third team in three years for him. The fact that there’s stability in his professional life I would think lends something to this. He’s certainly settled in the way he’s thrown the baseball.”
Kimbrel also said this is the best he has felt physically in quite a while.
“For me, that’s all you can ask for,” he said. “Everything else follows.”
On Sunday against the Minnesota Twins, Kimbrel entered the game in the eighth inning with a one-run lead and a runner on third. He struck out Joe Mauer with a curveball and Max Kepler with a fastball.
The plan was for Kimbrel to stay in for the ninth inning and pick up a five-out save. But he was able to stay in the dugout when the Red Sox scored 10 runs in the top of the inning.
He laughed when asked if regretted not being around for the save.
“I’m glad we won the game,” Kimbrel said.
That’s one more statistic worth mentioning: The Sox are 14-0 when Kimbrel pitches.
“I’m glad I don’t have to face him,” Pedroia said. “He’s been ridiculous.”
Peter Abraham can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @peteabe.