Being Bullish On Brandon Kintzler

In the summer of 2009, Brandon Kintzler wasn’t a highly-touted prospect cruising through the Milwaukee Brewers’ farm system. He was just another former 40th-round pick, toiling through his third-consecutive season in the independent leagues and trying to catch the eye of any professional organization.

The Brewers fortuitously had a scout at the American Association’s All-Star Game in Grand Prairie, Texas, where they saw Kintzler pitch two scoreless innings for the North Division in which he struck out three and walked no one. The two sides quickly agreed on a contract, and just one season later at age-25, the right-hander made his major-league debut against the Chicago Cubs.

Although he began to turn heads in Milwaukee during the 2011 season, a season-ending arm injury set him back once again. Rehab proved difficult. He continued to feel discomfort in his elbow in spring training the following year, but all nerve tests and MRIs repeatedly came back clean showing no issues. Doctors eventually diagnosed him with a strained forearm. It took the majority of the season for him to regain his arm strength, but when he did, he worked his way back to the majors and appeared in 14 games in September and October.

The 2013 season found Kintzler completely healthy for the first time in almost two years, and he took full advantage. He posted a 2.54 FIP in 77.0 innings and eventually wiggled his way into the primary set-up role by the end of the campaign. The strikeout numbers are not what fantasy owners would prefer, as he only managed a 6.78 K/9 strikeout rate, but he induced a myriad of ground balls, kept the baseball in the ballpark and issued very few free passes. That resulted in a supremely effective, if unspectacular, season.

While fellow right-hander Jim Henderson possesses a firm grip on the closer’s role in Milwaukee, Kintzler is primed for a full season of high-leverage usage. He should handle the eighth inning for manager Ron Roenicke, and I’m expecting another season of significant success. It may even be fantasy-relevant success, too.

It’s not difficult to ascertain the source of Kintzler’s success. He features a nasty fastball that generates ample ground balls. It’s such an effective pitch that he decided to lean on it extremely heavily, as its usage-rate jumped from 61.6% in 2012 to 77.2% in 2013. On related notes, his walk rate correspondingly improved and his home-run rate dropped to a minuscule 0.23 HR/9. In fact, only five qualified relievers had a lower home-run rate last season.

# Player Team HR/9
1 Mark Melancon Pirates 0.13
2 Luis Avilan Braves 0.14
3 Alex Torres Rays 0.16
4 Scott Rice Mets 0.18
5 Bobby Parnell Mets 0.18
6 Brandon Kintzler Brewers 0.23

As such, I feel good about Brandon Kintzler keeping the baseball in the ballpark next season and finding similar success. He compiled a 2.69 ERA, 2.54 FIP, 2.82 SIERA, .226 opponent’s batting average and 1.06 WHIP. Across the board, those are solid ratios that will help any fantasy owner. The strikeout rate has to take a jump forward, though, for him to be a truly relevant fantasy reliever.

Fortunately, the 29-year-old hurler has two aspects working in his favor: (1) his swinging-strike rate suggests an uptick in his strikeout rate may be on the horizon, and (2) he has a solid opportunity to slide into the closer’s role for Milwaukee by the end of the year.

Kintzler has now had four cups of coffee in the big leagues, and his 6.78 K/9 strikeout rate was the lowest of his brief career. His previous strikeout rates in the minors were healthy, and in the big leagues, they were 9.20 K/9 and 7.56 K/9 the past two years, respectively. Considering his swinging-strike rate remained level at 9.2% and he induced a higher percentage of swings at pitches outside the strike zone than ever before, I like the probability of more strikeouts being on the horizon next year.

As far as the second positive note mentioned above, it should be noted that’s almost wholly directed at fantasy owners who participate in saves-only leagues. Those who include holds will already garner plenty of value from Kintzler and a move to the closer’s role will only incrementally improve his overall value in such a league. However, for those owners who get absolutely nothing for holds and are consistently left scrounging for saves, Kintzler is a sneaky name to keep in your back pocket.

Of course, all this is predicated on the fact that I’m not confident Jim Henderson remains closer. Our own Mike Podhorzer wrote about Henderson yesterday, and he mentioned the two primary concerns: his control and his platoon issues. The control isn’t a deal-breaker for me as long as the strikeouts continue to pile up and mitigate the few extra base runners. The platoon issues, however, are a massive concern that may prevent him from sustaining success in the notoriously-fickle ninth inning.

He owned a 4.73 FIP and 5.27 BB/9 against lefties last year, compared to a mere 2.62 FIP and 2.20 BB/9 against righties. He also struggled with surrendering far more homers to lefties than righties. To be fair, some BABIP is involved in the massive difference, but it’s important to recognize this isn’t a mere statistical fluke. Henderson doesn’t have a pitch to reliably retire lefties. As of now, he’s fully reliant upon his fastball against lefties, as his slider was inconsistent at times throughout the year and he didn’t want to feature it often against opposite-handed hitters. And even though Henderson possesses an above-average fastball, one pitch rarely works over a long period of time. That arguably began to manifest itself in September when he surrendered an overall 5.59 ERA, which included a .389 wOBA versus lefties. Unless he’s been working on a changeup, cutter or curveball this winter, similar platoon issues project to threaten his ’14 season.

The Brewers have reportedly been looking for a veteran reliever with closing experience this winter. As of now, the organization hasn’t agreed to terms with anyone, which makes Brandon Kintzler the second-in-command for the Brewers’ bullpen. Considering my pessimistic views on Jim Henderson, that makes Kintzler a diamond in the rough for the ’14 fantasy campaign. He won’t garner any attention from competing owners because he lacks the sexy strikeout rate and isn’t currently a closer. The right-hander should continue to find success, though, and if the whiffs better reflect his swinging-strike rate or Jim Henderson unfortunately struggles in the spring or early-summer, he’ll be a steal in almost any league.

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J.P. Breen is a graduate student at the University of Chicago. For analysis on the Brewers and fantasy baseball, you can follow him on Twitter (@JP_Breen).

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Good stuff. Thanks, JP.