Brandon Kintzler on Injuries, Respect, and a Bowling-Ball Sinker

Brandon Kintzler doesn’t fit your standard closer profile. The 32-year-old righty isn’t a power pitcher, at least not in terms of missing bats. He averaged just 5.8 strikeouts per nine innings last year while earning 17 saves with the Minnesota Twins. Featuring a sinker that he threw 82% of the time, at an average velocity of 92 mph, he had a 61.9% ground-ball rate and 3.15 ERA.

And then there’s his background. A 40th-round pick by the San Diego Padres in 2004, Kintzler was pitching in an independent league three years later — and not particularly well. The Brewers nonetheless gave him a chance, and he rewarded them by beating the odds and making it to the big leagues. After solid seasons as a setup man in 2013 and 2014, things once again went south. Following an injury-ravaged 2015 that saw him throw just seven innings, Milwaukee cut him loose. The Twins signed him prior to last season.

Kintzler is well acquainted with operating rooms. Since entering pro ball out of Dixie State College, he’s undergone repairs to his shoulder, elbow, and left knee. All have had major impacts on a career that has seen him go from non-prospect to arguably the least-respected closer in the game.

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Kintzler on his sinker-heavy approach: “I think everyone has different stuff. We all have different deception. We all have different… everyone talks about spin rate. I just think everyone is different. What I do works for me. I found out that what makes me successful is attacking with my fastball and forcing action. Could I try to strike out more people? Probably. But that means too many pitches, and I want to throw every day.

“The slider was my pitch coming up through the minor leagues. I had a great slider. But ever since I fractured my elbow in 2011, I never got a chance to really get a feel for that pitch. But I’ve always had a feel for my sinker, and I’ve had success with it. Quick outs are what I want. I can get swings and misses on it, but if I can get an out on two pitches, or even one, that benefits the team.”

On learning to drive his sinker down: ““There’s nothing unique about my [sinker] grip. Some guys throw it differently, but mine is just right on top of the seams. You want sink on your sinker. You don’t want fade. Fade is trouble. The ones that go to the side are where you’re asking for trouble. The arm-side sinker is my money pitch, my bread and butter. When I learned to back door it glove side is what got me to… it’s what elevated my career. I could throw it to both sides of the plate.

“I started working on it a lot in independent ball [in 2007-2008] when I was coming back from shoulder surgery. I was only throwing about 86 at the time. I was getting my butt kicked, so I started throwing a lot of two-seamers. I learned how to power my body into making it move late. A lot of guys just throw a two-seamer. There’s a difference between driving a two-seamer and throwing a two-seamer. I learned how to drive a two-seamer down.”

On his sinker as multiple pitches: “I think if you can spot your sinker in five different areas, that’s five different pitches. I can go to both sides of the plate — that’s two, and if I want to go up in the zone with it… I mean, everybody thinks, ‘Oh, he’s only got one pitch,’ but I can move it to different coordinates of the strike zone.

“A sinker can work up, as well as down. I get a lot of lefties to top that. There’s a difference between getting under it and throwing up, and getting on top of it and throwing up. If you’re on top of it, it’s still going to come down — it’s just elevated a little more. What you want is for it to look hittable, then have that late movement.”

On losing the feel on his slider: “I had a screw put in my elbow in 2011, and in 2012… It took a while for my elbow to feel comfortable throwing that pitch. I was competing to get back to the big leagues, and I knew my fastball was going to work, so I stayed with that and kind of put my slider in my back pocket.

“In 2013, I started to feel my knee really bad. I couldn’t plant and throw my slider. I couldn’t really drive to the ground. For two years, I pitched with a torn tendon in my left knee. So I never got a chance to get the feel back on that pitch. I couldn’t drive and throw it. As a result, I had to rely on the movement of my fastball.”

On getting his legs back under him: “In 2013, my sinker was still good, although my velocity began to diminish because, again, I couldn’t drive to the ground. In 2014, my sinker wasn’t as good, because my mechanics started to change. Then, in 2015, after I had surgery, I had zero strength in my leg. I had terrible numbers.

“Fortunately, I got my legs back under me. When I was competing for a job last year, I knew I could win on my fastball, so that’s really all I wanted to throw. This year is the first I’ve gotten chance to really work on a slider.”

On his changeup and incorporating more sliders this year: “I’ve had three innings on the back fields, and I’ve probably thrown 20 sliders. That’s more than I’ve thrown in two years. So it’s definitely a weapon that’s going to be there. If I have people cheating on my sinker, or thinking sinker all the time, I don’t need to throw a great slider. I just need to throw one on the plate.

“I have a changeup. I throw it to lefties, and I’m working on throwing it to righties. I threw them to righties before I cracked my elbow. I had a few strikeouts last year to lefties on changeups. But it’s hard. It’s a hard 88. I’d love to slow it down, but it just won’t slow down. It might be the grip, but for me it’s a comfortable grip. It looks just like my sinker, only a little slower.”

On sticking to his strengths: “I don’t rely much on scouting reports. I’d rather just stay with my strengths. That’s one thing with Eddie [Guardado] being our bullpen coach — he’s really big sticking with your strengths. If you make your pitches and they beat you, they beat you. The way I look at it, if I make my pitches, I’m going to beat you 95% of the time.

“I just attack. I’d rather make them uncomfortable. If I’m throwing balls and trying to nibble, that makes me uncomfortable, and them aggressive. The more aggressive I am to them, the less comfortable they get.”

On respect and not fitting the closer profile: “What is a closer profile? I played with K-Rod for a long time and he was throwing 89. But he has a great changeup. I have the sinker. The object is to get outs. No matter how you get them, just get outs. Obviously, strikeouts don’t put the defense into play, and I understand that everybody loves the high-90s guys in the ninth inning, but like I was saying earlier, I want to get quick outs and move on to the next day. I don’t want to try striking guys out and end up throwing 25 pitches.

“Respect is earned in this game, and it takes a long time to earn it. I don’t think I’ve done enough in my career to expect it. I do think people probably respect me for the path I’ve taken. It hasn’t been an easy one. But I don’t need respect from people. As long as I go out there and do my job, and my team appreciates that… that’s all that matters to me, really.”

We hoped you liked reading Brandon Kintzler on Injuries, Respect, and a Bowling-Ball Sinker by David Laurila!

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David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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Good stuff.