One year after a trade that sent Brandon Kintzler from the Minnesota Twins to the Washington Nationals, the veteran right-hander was on the move again. This time, Kintzler, 34, was headed to the Chicago Cubs at the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline.
In 2017, the Nationals traded for Kintzler in the hopes he would continue to post the All-Star-caliber numbers that made him one of the best relievers dealt that summer. Prior to the trade, the right-hander had logged a 2.78 ERA across 45.1 innings, converting 28 of the 32 save opportunities he would receive during that season with the Twins.
Unlike some of the better relievers in baseball, Kintzler has not relied on strikeouts to make a living in the back-end of contending team’s bullpens. For his career, Kintzler owns a strikeout rate of 16.4 percent, a number that sat at its lowest point (13.5 percent) one year ago. What the right-hander does rely on to keep runners off base and get outs is his ability to induce an elite amount of ground balls without walking too many batters.
In his lone All-Star season of 2017, Kintzler logged a ground ball rate of 54.9 percent with a very solid walk rate of 5.6 percent. That ground ball rate was good enough to rank Kintzler 21st in baseball in that category. While that’s nothing to shake your head at, that solid number was actually the lowest ground ball rate for the right-hander since the 2012 season. To make up for the lack of ground balls, Kintzler has given up more and more fly balls in each of the last two seasons. In 2016, the hurler’s fly ball rate sat at a respectable 19.9 percent, only to increase almost seven percentage points in 2017 and again by almost three more points this season.
Accompanying those spikes in his fly ball rate, Kintzler’s medium and soft contact rates have headed in the wrong direction of late. Two years ago, the right-hander allowed a 22.3 percent soft contact rate and a 48 percent medium contact rate. Last year, those numbers clocked in at 19.1 percent and 55.2 percent respectively while his hard hit rates sat around his career average of 26.6 percent.
Things Have Not Gone so Well on the North Side
Prior to his trade to the Cubs, Kintzler had rather solid numbers with the Nationals. A 3.82 first half ERA was bolstered by a 3.60 FIP while his 17.3 percent strikeout rate and 7.7 percent walk rate were not far off from his career numbers. One troubling trend, however, remained Kintzler’s call to glory, his ground ball rate. For a pitcher who has posted 60-plus percent numbers in the past, his 47.8 percent ground rate was laughable. To make matters worse, Kintzler yielded a pre-All-Star break fly ball rate of 28.3 percent and a hard hit percentage of 30.7 which were both solidly average his career average.
Even with some important numbers trending in the wrong direction, the Cubs still swung a trade to acquire the veteran. The decision was no doubt made easier when Kintzler posted a 2.03 ERA in 13.1 innings during the month of July while holding opposing hitters to a .204/.220/.286 slash line. For that one month, Kintzler’s numbers seemed to return to normal as he posted a ground ball rate of 53.8 percent and a hard hit rate below his career average.
Unfortunately for the Cubs, who acquired the right-hander on the last day of his outstanding month, Kintzler has been unable to bring that magic to the North Side of Chicago.
Kintzler’s first scoreless outing since August 22 came on the 30th and lowered his ERA as a Cub to 8.38. With that sample size remains small — 9.2 innings over 14 appearances — Kintzler has not done himself any favors by working into tight spots before being pulled.
The troubling numbers go deeper than just his ERA, unfortunately. In the month of August, opposing hitters teed off on Kintzler and slashed .378/.451/.705. That lofty slugging percentage was driven by three home runs allowed, already one more than he allowed during the first half of the season with Washington.
As stated prior, Kintzler is not a pitcher to rely on the strikeout to get outs. However, a 9.8 percent strikeout rate like the one he posted in August will not get the job done, especially when you are walking 11.8 percent of the batters you face and not inducing near enough ground balls.
While Kintzler’s ground ball has actually ticked up to 50 percent with the Cubs, so has his fly ball and hard hit statistics. Currently, the veteran is sitting on a career fly ball rate of 23.4 percent which would be the 17th lowest mark by a reliever if he was posting that number this season. Instead, Kintzler owns a 29.3 percent mark in 2018, a number that is not being helped by his 32.5 percent fly ball rate as a Cub and 31.5 percent mark in the second half of the season.
To cap things off, Kintzler’s hard contact percentage’s are off the charts. As stated previously, the right-hander posted a solid 25.6 percent number when he was going right in July. One month later, Kintzler has posted a 35 percent hard hit rate, helping to drive his 35.2 percent second half mark and 32.1 percent mark for the season (would be his highest since 2010 if it holds).
Kintzler’s Sinker Has Not Been as Effective
Most good ground ball pitchers rely on a sinker and Kintzler is no exception. This season, the veteran is utilizing the pitch 79 percent of the time, in-line with the past two years of his career. What is not in-line with years prior is the number of ground balls induced on the pitch.
Each year since 2016, Kintzler has been getting fewer and fewer ground balls per ball in play on his sinker. In 2016, that number sat at 64.23 (percentage of balls in play that are ground balls when hit off a sinker), only to fall to 57.64 in 2017 and hit rock bottom at 51.03 this season.
Corresponding with that drop in ground balls as been a rise in fly balls per ball in play, increasing from 14.60 two years to 18.62 this season. In addition to opposing hitters lifting Kintzler’s sinker more, they are also hitting it harder than in recent years.
During his All-Star-caliber season one year ago, opposing hitters slugged just .345 on Kintzler’s sinker, a number that has risen to .448 this season. That number would the highest of his career if you take out Kintzler’s partial seasons of 2010, 2011 and 2015. Perhaps the biggest jump in opponent’s success on the pitch comes in the ISO department. Just one year ago, opposing hitters managed an ISO of .095 on the pitch. This season, that number sits at .163, which would once again sit a career-high if you remove the three campaigns mentioned above.
Obviously, pitch location is one of the most, if not the most, important thing for a pitcher in the game of baseball. When a pitcher starts to decline, however, it’s natural to look for a dip in velocity as a possible sign of their struggles, especially with a 34-year-old veteran like Kintzler. In this instance, velocity is not the issue as the right-hander is still ramping the pitch into the 91-95 MPH range consistently, averaging 93 MPH. Movement on his sinker doesn’t appear to be the problem either as both Kintzler’s vertical and horizontal movement on the offering are within career norms.
That leaves one thing, and perhaps the most important, pitch location. Sinkers are ground ball inducers because they move down and in from the hand of a righty pitcher to a right-handed batter and down and away from lefties. Because of that downward plane, most of the time a batter is going to bury the ball into the ground if he does not swing over the top of it.
Here is a zone profile of all Kintzler’s sinkers thrown during the 2016 season:
You can tell Kintzler did a nice job of getting that pitch all the way in and all the way down to a right-handed batter while making sure it would be low enough so all a southpaw batter could do would be to drive it into the ground.
Here’s the same chart from last season:
While there are increased percentages in the middle of the zone, there are also big jumps in the zones at the very bottom of the strike zone and in to a right-handed batter. That, and the red zone just out of the zone and low made Kintzler a nightmare for lefties (.194) average while keeping righties from barreling up the ball too much (.399 slugging percentage).
Now, here’s Kintzler’s chart from this year:
From blue to more of a purple color, the three zones in to a lefty and up have not helped Kintzler’s cause this season. So far in 2018, lefties are killing the veteran, slashing .268/.375/.488, likely caused by the increased amount of sinkers up in the zone.
Looking at Kintzler’s zone charts for this season, it’s pretty easy to tell why he is struggling. Over the last three seasons, Kintzler has left more sinkers up in the zone, turning what was once his best pitch into a tool for batters to use against him. Instead of getting ground balls and double plays to wiggle out of jams, Kintzler is allowing opponents to slug his best pitch, resulting in sky-high numbers.
So far, Kintzler’s issues have been compacted into a small sample size with the Cubs. Still, if the right-hander wants to remain on the roster during postseason play, he will have to get his sinker down in the zone once again. If that happens, the veteran may be able to turn things around in Chicago before he is subject to a team option in 2019.
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