To call the Minnesota Twins’ 2016 season abysmal could possibly be an understatement. After falling just short of making the playoffs in 2015, the Twins have become the worst team in the Majors in 2016, compiling a 27-55 record through their first 82 games.
In 2016, just about everything that could go wrong, has gone wrong. The entire rotation has fallen to shambles, including “ace” Phil Hughes who was demoted to the bullpen before a season-ending injury. Top prospect Byron Buxton has failed to meet expectations, receiving a demotion to Triple-A at the end of April before making a mediocre return to the bigs a month later. And a number of other position players failed to produce as expected, including veteran Trevor Plouffe, Korean import Byung-ho Park, and sophomore Eddie Rosario. But among the biggest problems in 2016 for the Twins has been the bullpen.
The bad news started when closer Glen Perkins was lost to injury after just a single game, and things continued to tumble when his stand-in, Kevin Jepsen transformed into one of the worst relievers in the league. With Perkins down for the season with a shoulder injury and Jepsen designated for assignment on July 3rd, the team was clearly in need of a new closer.
Enter Brandon Kintzler.
Prior to this year, Kintzler’s career consisted of six years of traveling up and down between Triple-A and the Milwaukee Brewers. While with the Brewers, Kintzler showed stuff akin to many middle relievers. Over 181 innings, he managed to strike out just 6.7 batters per nine, but he did exhibit above-average control (2.5 BB/9) while maintaining a manageable ERA of 3.38. He was a serviceable arm who gave the Brewers decent innings, but he never showed the potential for pitching in high-leverage situations.
After the 2015 season, his worst since his debut in 2010, the Brewers cut Kintzler loose. He signed on with the Twins in the offseason on a minor-league deal, and while he impressed in spring training, the team simply couldn’t squeeze him onto the roster at that point. Following injuries the injuries and ineffectiveness of other relievers, Kintzler had his contract purchased by the Twins on May 7.
He allowed a run in just one of his first 11 appearances and earned himself an opportunity at the back of the bullpen. Since then, Kintzler has secured four victories with saves, including his fourth on the day of Jepsen’s DFA. Kintzler has gone from middle relief castoff/minor league free agent to closer in just a couple of months time. This shows nothing, if not the fickle nature of relief pitchers in major league baseball.
Kintzler is pitching significantly differently this year. In the past, Kintzler has thrown primarily sinkers, utilizing the pitch in approximately two out of every three deliveries, but in 2016, Kintzler has taken that number to a new level, increasing its usage all the way up to 87 percent. His increase in the volume of sinkers he throws has helped to increase his success in more ways than one.
For his career, Kintzler holds a 58.4 percent groundball rate, which is well above-average, but this season his groundball rate has risen concurrently (to 65.3%) with the increase in sinkers. Fortunately for Kintzler, it stands to reason that when you throw your pitch that induces the most groundballs, you are likely to get more groundballs. The increase in grounders does not appear to be a small sample size fluke.
On top of increasing his groundball rate, Kintzler has also dramatically decreased his walk rate. Already known to have strong control (2.5 BB/9 in Milwaukee), Kintzler has limited free passes to a mere 0.8 batters per nine. Again, it makes intuitive sense that when he throws the sinker more he’ll be able to throw more strikes since he has been able to throw the sinker in the zone more often than he has for his slider and changeup.
Kintzler has made a major change to his repertoire this season and it has immediately paid dividends for him. Whether or not the league will adjust to his new approach remains to be seen, though. If Kintzler can continue to throw strikes and get groundballs while pitching almost exclusively with his sinker, then we might see a reliever worthy of holding onto his place at the back end of the bullpen. If hitters respond and force him to change strategies, Kintzler could very well go back to being the middling reliever that he had been in Milwaukee, though.
For now, Kintzler will continue to work as the Twins closer, and if things keep going well, he could even become a trade candidate when the July deadline rolls around. Kintzler has a year of control left after 2016, and his sinker could be a valuable weapon to a contender in need of bullpen help.