Sunday Notes: Brewers Prospect J.T. Hintzen Isn’t a Knuckleball Pitcher

J.T. Hintzen is a reliever with a five-pitch arsenal. Atypical as that is — most bullpen arms don’t feature such a wide array of offerings — it’s one particular pitch that sets the 25-year-old right-hander apart from his peers. Hintzen’s varied mix includes the increasingly-rare knuckleball.

More on that in a moment.

Hintzen is as unheralded as he is unique. A 10th-round pick in 2018 out of Florida Southern College, the Greenwich, Connecticut native remains under the radar despite a 3.38 ERA and 204 strikeouts in 162-and-a-third professional innings. Back in action this summer following last year’s COVID-cancelled minor-league season, he logged a 3.88 ERA and a 12.3 K/9 over 58 innings with the Double-A Biloxi Shuckers.

Hintzens arsenal comprises two sliders — “one that sweeps across the zone, and one that’s more downward” — a changeup, a four-seam fastball with good ride, and the knuckleball. Effectively tunneling his heater and the sharper of his breakers is a big key to his success.

“[The slider] comes out of the same arm slot as my fastball, and pairing the two usually gets hitters out, because they can’t read it well,” explained Hintzen, who augmented his 36 regular-season appearances with 11 more for the Arizona Fall League’s Salt River Rafters. “It comes out hard. If I throw my fastball 90 mph, my slider is probably coming out around 85. The sweeping one is more like 80 mph. I’ve gotten up to 20-plus inches of horizontal break with that one — straight across the zone like a frisbee — whereas the [harder one] is more like five to 10, but more downward. I’m throwing them on two different planes.”

Hintzen delivers his pitches from a lower arm slot — his release point will creep below five feet — and the spin he gets on his fastball ranges between 2,400 and 2,500 RPMs. And then there’s the pitch that rotates hardly at all.

“My dad didn’t want me to throw a breaking ball early on, because he thought I might hurt my arm,” recalled Hintzen, who aspires to move into a starting role. “He always threw a knuckleball as a kid, so he taught it to me and I’ve been throwing it ever since. It’s basically like a glorified splitter. Even if I don’t throw it well, it’s still a changeup. My bad knuckleballs have spin, but only around 600 RPM, which is still super low. It’s very different from my four-seam fastball.”

And again, the mere fact that he throws one makes him different. Per Statcast, the only non-position player to throw a butterfly in the big leagues this year was Mickey Jannis, who delivered 57 of them (out of 71 pitches) in his lone outing.

Hintzen estimated that he threw his knuckleball 20-25% of the time in the Arizona Fall League. As for any aspirations of becoming the next Jannis — or more fruitfully the next Hoyt Wilhelm or Tim Wakefield — that isn’t part of the plan.

“No,” replied Hintzen when asked if he’s considered making it his primary pitch. “I don’t think of myself as a knuckleball pitcher. I think of myself as a pitcher who throws a knuckleball.”

———

RANDOM HITTER-PITCHER MATCHUPS

Willie Mays went 28 for 59 against Clem Labine.

Clem Clemens went 0 for 4 against Eppa Rixey.

Chet Clemens went 0 for 5 against Johnny Gee.

Roger Clemens went 2 for 7 against Greg Maddux.

Verne Clemons went 6 for 13 against Slim Sallee.

———

This year’s National League MVP race was a classic example of “value” being in the eye of the beholder. Trea Turner finished fifth in the balloting, this despite putting up an MLB-best 6.9 WAR, as well as a second-best-among-shortstops 142 wRC+. Moreover, the 28-year-old bashed 28 home runs, swiped 32 bags, and led both circuits in batting average (.328) and total bases (319). Only one voter felt that was worthy of a first-plate vote.

Two voters — perhaps penalizing him for having played for multiple teams — left Turner off their 10-player ballots entirely. Was he less valuable because he was dealt from the Washington Nationals to the Los Angeles Dodgers a day before the July 30 trade deadline? That may well have been deemed the case, because statistically-speaking, Turner was as good as any player in either league.

———

The Athletic’s C. Trent Rosecrans and The Boston Globe’s Alex Speier were co-guests on this past Friday’s episode of FanGraphs Audio. The subject at hand was pitcher value — both had Cy Young Award votes this year — and Speier in particular had some thought-provoking opinions to share. A week earlier, the saber-savvy scribe had written an article explaining how the voting process had helped him reimagine how he evaluates pitching analytics.

Here is a brief excerpt from what Speier had to say:

In asking a lot of people about what matters when evaluating pitcher performance — specifically what matters when evaluating pitcher performance that has occurred, as opposed to looking forward and projecting what someone might do — I think I’m done with FIP, and I think I’m done with WAR as offered by both FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference. We live in an era where we know what happens with every batted ball — we have more detailed information — so eliminating batted ball data, as we do with fielding independent pitching, doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense to me. Only about one third of our plate appearances end without a ball in play.

The segment runs for better than 30 minutes, and therefore covers the subject in far more depth than is given above. Speier and Rosecrans are both well-versed in analytics — and the second segments features Jay Jaffe and Adam Darowski discussing the Early Baseball and Golden Days ballots — so the episode is well worth your listen.

———

A quiz:

Derek Jeter’s 3,465th, and final, hit drove in a runner who finished his career with a higher batting average and more 5.0-plus WAR seasons than the Yankees Hall of Famer. Who was it?

The answer can be found below.

———

NEWS NOTES

Ballpark Digest has named Sam Levitt its 2021 Minor League Broadcaster of the Year. A 2014 graduate of Northwestern University, Levitt is the play-by-play voice of the Amarillo Sod Poodles, the Double-A affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Doug Jones, a changeup specialist who pitched for seven teams from 1982-2000, died earlier this week at age 64. Working mostly in relief, the mustachioed right-hander logged 303 career saves, 112 of them in a three-year stretch with Cleveland. Cause of death was reportedly COVID-related complications.

Per MASN’s Roch Kobatko, Buck Britton will be the new manager of the Norfolk Tides, the Triple-A affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles. The 35-year-old older brother of New York Yankees southpaw Zach Britton managed Double-A Bowie this year.

———

The answer to the quiz is Ichiro Suzuki, who batted .311 and had six seasons with 5.0-plus WAR. Jeter batted .310 and had five seasons with 5.0-plus WAR.

———

Lefty O’Doul is on this year’s Early Baseball Era ballot, and while his playing career falls short of Hall of Fame worthiness, his overall contributions to the game are another story. A two-time National League batting champion with a 142 wRC+ in 3,659 big-league plate appearances, O’Doul also starred in the Pacific Coast League, putting up a .352 average in 3,259 plate appearances. Moreover, he amassed more than 2,000 managerial wins in the PCL from 1935-1957, and made numerous promotional trips to Japan over those two-plus decades.

O’Doul is already a member of both the Pacific Coast League Hall of Fame and the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame. Considering the totality of his accomplishments, O’Doul is likewise worthy of enshrinement in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

———

FOREIGN AFFAIRS

The Yakult Swallows captured their first Japan Series title in 20 years on Saturday with a 12-inning, 2-1 win over the Orix Buffaloes. Erstwhile Miami Marlins righty Scott McGough got the Game 6 win in relief, while Orix ace Yoshinobu Yamamoto threw 141 pitches over nine innings for the losing side.

In Game 5, Orix’s Steven Moya joined Reiji Ishii (1970, with Lotte) and Keishi Totoki (1957, with Yomiuri) as the only players to record three pinch hits in a Japan Series. Moya, whose professional career includes 51 games with the Detroit Tigers from 2014-2016, has spent the past four seasons in Japan.

The Chiba Lotte Marines have re-signed Brandon Laird to a one-year contract. The 34-year-old former New York Yankees and Houston Astros corner infielder has slugged 198 home runs in seven NPB seasons, including 29 this past year.

Roberto Osuna has seven saves and a 1.83 ERA over 20 relief appearances for Charros de Jalisco in the Mexican Pacific Winter League. The 26-year-old former Toronto Blue Jays and Houston Astros closer was suspended for violating MLB’s domestic violence policy and hasn’t pitched stateside since August 2020.

Isidro Márquez has made 17 relief outings comprising 11-and-a-third innings for Mayos de Navojoa, and Sultanes de Monterrey, in the Mexican Pacific Winter League. The 56-year-old right-hander played in the Los Angeles Dodgers and Chicago White Sox systems from 1988-1995.

———

I ran a pair of Twitter polls this week. In one, I asked which of Albert Belle or Tony Oliva was better. In the other, I asked the same of Joe Nathan and Lee Smith. Befitting their respective resumes, both matchups yielded close results.

Here are statistical snapshots of the sluggers, and the shut-down relievers:

Belle: 1,726 hits, 381 HR, 3,300 total bases, 139 wRC+, 41.0 WAR.
Oliva: 1,917 hits, 220 HR, 3,002 total bases, 129 wRC+, 40.7 WAR.

Nathan:787 games, 923.1 IP, 377 saves, 2.87 ERA, 3.36 FIP, 19.5 WAR.
Smith: 1,022 games, 1,289.1 IP, 478 saves, 3.03 ERA, 2.93 FIP, 26.6 WAR.

The results of the first poll had 52.5% of the voters opting for Oliva, while 47.5% believed that Belle was better. In the latter poll, 51.0% went with Nathan, while 49.0% favored Smith.

I’m in accord with the minority in both cases. For my money, Belle and Smith were the more-accomplished players.

———

On the subject of comps:

Michael Brantley: 1,571 hits, 122 HR, 2,317 total bases, 124 SB, 27.3 WAR.

Coco Crisp: 1,572 hits, 130 HR, 2,384 total bases, 309 SB, 30.6 WAR.

Somewhat surprising, isn’t it? Brantley has a clear edge in wRC+ (117-97), and at age 34 he is coming off a robust season. He’s unquestionably the better hitter of the two. That said, is Brantley, to this point in his career, a better overall player than Crisp was in his 15 big-league seasons? Maybe. Then again, maybe not.

———

LINKS YOU’LL LIKE

At The Seattle Times, Larry Stone shared how Mariners manager Scott Servais’s career and life are rooted in small-town Wisconsin.

At Royals Review, Bradford Lee wrote about George Brett and Morgana “The Kissing Bandit,” and some of the other off-the-wall things that have taken place at Kansas City’s Kauffman Stadium.

Bill Virdon died this past week at age 90. Jordan Meier wrote about his life and career for The Springfield (MO) News-Leader.

Casey Stengel once charged the mound against a pitcher named Lefty Weinart, reportedly spewing anti-semitic epithets on the way. Russ Walsh wrote about it at his “The Faith of a Phillies Fan” blog.

Ken Holtzman threw two no-hitters. Bleed Cubbie Blue’s Al Yellon told us about a near-miss the left-hander had against Sandy Koufax and the Dodgers in 1966.

Thomas Ruwe went from not pitching in high school to throwing 98 mph. Chris Langin shared the Toronto Blue Jay prospect’s story at Driveline’s offseason-training blog.

———

RANDOM FACTS AND STATS

Tom Herr hit eight home runs when he drove in 110 runs for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1985. The switch-hitting second baseman had four home runs, 124 total bases, and 55 RBIs in home games. He had four home runs, 124 total bases, and 55 RBIs in away games.

Javier Báez had 31 home runs, a 116 wRC+, and 3.6 WAR this year. Adam Frazier had five home runs, a 114 wRC+, and 3.4 WAR.

Mark Canha and Ty France led all hitters with 27 HBPs this year. France had 18 home runs, while Canha had 17 home runs. Willy Adames had the most home runs (25) among hitters who didn’t reach base via HBP.

Tyler Anderson allowed 27 home runs and had one HBP. Austin Adams allowed one home run and had 24 HBPs.

Dutch Leonard went 19-5 with a 0.96 ERA and a league-best 7.1 K/9 for the Boston Red Sox in 1914. The 22-year-old left-hander allowed nine runs, six of them earned, in his five losses. He had a no-decision in a 13-inning 1-1 tie.

The Los Angeles Dodgers traded Bob Miller, Ron Perranoski, and John Roseboro to the Minnesota Twins in exchange for Mudcat Grant and Zoilo Versalles on today’s date in 1967. The deal was a steal for Minnesota. Grant and Versalles combined for negative WAR in their LA tenures, while Perranoski had 71 saves and 24 wins for the Twins over the next three seasons.

The Seattle Mariners signed David Ortiz as an amateur free agent on today’s date in 1992.

Players born on today’s date include Purnal Goldy, an outfielder who played parts of the 1962 and 1963 seasons with the Detroit Tigers. Goldy began his career with 12 hits in 29 at bats, then proceeded to finish 6-for-49, the latter stretch including a game when he went 1-for-10 — his lone hit a three-run homer — in a 22-inning, 9-7 loss to the New York Yankees.

Also born on today’s date was Daisy Davis, a pitcher/outfielder in 1884 and 1885 who played for the St. Louis Browns and the Boston Beaneaters. The only other “Daisy” in baseball annals is George Daisy, who appeared in one game with the Union Association’s Altoona Mountain City in 1884.





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.

newest oldest most voted
Michael
Member
Member
Michael

It’s interesting that both FIP and ground ball rates are simultaneously held in high regard,

MikeS
Member
Member
MikeS

There are a few things like that in the current thinking. For instance, I have always found it interesting that, for hitters, strikeouts don’t matter much because outs are outs, but for pitchers, strikeouts are a good measure of future success.

Obviously we are both dealing with oversimplification a little, but they are still interesting.

sadtrombone
Member
Member
sadtrombone

Well, strikeouts are often considered fine for hitters if they are paired with higher walk rates and power. That doesn’t mean that strikeouts don’t matter, it just means that it can be offset with other things. (And I would argue that there is a point for most players where if you strike out enough the whole profile collapses). I think that these are largely seen as things that are flaws and strengths that a player tends to repeat across several years.

It’s hard to replace strikeouts as a predictor of success on the pitcher side, because it’s very clearly a repeatable skill. Ground ball outcomes are probably a distant second, since we know that some pitchers are much better and keeping the ball on the ground, so it’s seen as a repeatable skill. Walks probably are in the same ballpark as ground balls. You can feel fairly confident that pitchers will do those three things from one year to the next, in roughly that order.