(Photo via the Flickr Creative Commons, thanks to Thomson 20192)
In today’s MLB, bullpens are king. Teams will search far and wide to find a good pitcher to send out in a jam or to protect a lead. Be it a former catcher closing for an NL champion, or a failed starter signing a $52 million deal to pitch in Colorado, teams will turn over every rock to find viable help for the pen.
Yet Brandon Kintzler still fell to the 40th round (twice) and nearly took a role in Moneyball before reaching the majors. So what clicked for this month’s PFO? How did he go from pitching in the independent Northern League to an All-Star closer in 2017 who inked a multi-year deal in December?
Kintzler played for the Padres’ Class-A affiliate in 2006, needing labrum surgery when he was released. This led him on a winding journey in the Northern League, balancing jobs at Cold Stone Creamery and hotel transportation with his dreams of pitching in the majors. Needing an extra edge, Kintzler reached out to one of his few contacts in the majors, Hall-of-Famer Greg Maddux.
Maddux suggested Kintzler focus on one pitch and learn how to locate it wherever he wanted. Using this advice and his sinker, Kintzler rose to start the league’s 2009 All-Star Game. While Kintzler wanted to show off his pitching prowess, his agent wanted him to take the role of Tim Hudson in Moneyball, seeing a 5-foot-10 inch journeyman instead of future big leaguer. Kintzler stuck with his gut and pitched, striking out five of the six batters he faced. He signed a minor league deal with Milwaukee the next day.
He was moved back to the bullpen with the Brewers in 2010, and called up later that year to little fanfare. Unfortunately, injuries reared their ugly head again, with a stress fracture in his elbow in 2011. This led to Kintzler being designated for assignment, although he returned to Milwaukee after going unclaimed. Finally, in 2013 and 2014 Kintzler found success as a set-up man with the Brewers, leaning on his sinker to the tune of a 2.69 ERA in 2013 and 3.24 in 2014.
Alas, injury struck again and forcing surgery to repair a torn tendon in his left knee. Limited to seven games in 2015, Kintzler signed a free agent deal with Minnesota before 2016, starting in Triple-A before being called up in May. Due to an injury to incumbent closer Glen Perkins and struggles from Kelvin Jepsen, Kintzler ended up tallying 17 saves that season. However, this was just an appetizer for the main course of the 2017 season.
Kintzler would start the season as the closer and ride his sinker to an All-Star appearance on the strength of a 2.24 ERA and 24 saves before being traded to the Nationals for their playoff run.
This begs the question, how did an oft-injured minor league free agent turn into one of the best closers with only one pitch? By using his 5-foot-10 delivery, Kintzler is able to generate the 14th best ground ball rate and 32nd lowest launch angle of any sinker in the game, making up for his heinous 4.9 K/9.
His odd delivery, impressive control, and complete health has allowed Kintzler to put together the best stretch of his career, something he’ll look to continue in Washington. On December 14th, Kintzler signed a two-year, $10 million contract with the National. From a 40th round draft pick, and near movie star, to All-Star pitcher with a multi-year deal on a contending team, Kintzler truly was Plucked from Obscurity.