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The Closer Who Doesn’t Strike Anyone Out

Every All-Star closer is a strikeout machine — except Brandon Kintzler. The 32-year-old Minnesota Twin just does things differently.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

When the Minnesota Twins hold the lead in a close game at home, the Target Field DJ puts Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” on the loudspeakers, because it’s the closer’s entrance music. That tradition dates back at least to Major League and Rick “Wild Thing” Vaughn sauntering out of the Memorial Stadium bullpen to the Troggs song of the same name.

Major League came out in 1989, just as managers like Tony La Russa were starting to use the save rule as a tactical crutch and pitchers like Dennis Eckersley were making the one-inning closer into a mythical figure. The save situation and the ninth inning became mystified, and the term “closer mentality” started creeping into the baseball lexicon, signifying an ineffable macho quality, a reckless courage found in cowboys or test pilots, that supposedly not all pitchers had.

Closers who survive long enough come to be defined by their entrance music: Mariano Rivera is Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” just as surely as Trevor Hoffman is AC/DC’s “Hells Bells.” (Considering how closer mythology came to value aggression, it’s ironic that the two all-time saves leaders were generally considered to be nice, level-headed guys.)

Not long after the introduction of the one-inning closer and entrance music, intimidation became part of the job. Some closers, like Rivera, were intimidating just by virtue of being excellent. Others had to find another way, whether it was shouting at hitters, perfecting a glare, occasionally throwing a 98 mph fastball high and tight, unbuttoning a jersey, or acting like a lunatic off the mound. Atlanta’s John Rocker did a little bit of everything.

But when the bullpen door at Target Field swings open with a save on the line, what comes out is not your typical closer.

Brandon Kintzler is the beneficiary of the custom by which any male athlete who’s 5-foot-9 or taller gets rounded up to 6-foot in the media guide. His hair’s a little shaggy, and his face is covered in a few days’ growth, like a teenager who went away to camp for the summer and is letting everything grow out while his parents can’t nag him to get a haircut. Except Kintzler, two weeks short of his 33rd birthday, has a little gray creeping into his hair and beard.

There’s a long tradition in baseball writing, dating at least to Greg Maddux, of saying that pitchers who lack Syndergaardian stature “look like your accountant” or some other white-collar worker. But that doesn’t work for Kintzler, who simply looks too happy to be a grown-up with a normal job. He’s more like that teenager on summer vacation, giving long answers through a big smile.

Kintzler is in his eighth big league season and his second with the Twins. In that season and a half with Minnesota, he’s saved 43 games with a 161 ERA+ in 95.2 innings. He’s three months from free agency and the big contract that often comes with it, and last week, he appeared in his first All-Star Game, in which he pitched a perfect fifth inning en route to a 2–1 American League victory.

“There was stuff going on all the time — you never had a chance to breathe, but it was worth it,” Kintzler said. “When we took the team photo, you get a chance to talk to everyone for like five minutes, and when we stood on the line, everything moves fast, but you get to acknowledge everyone with the crowd going nuts. Then I had four innings to sit in the bullpen and enjoy it before I pitched, and afterwards a lot of guys left but I hung out in the dugout. You never know if you’re going back.”

Kintzler has the confidence of a pitcher with eight years of big league experience, but also the perspective of a player who didn’t exactly take a traditional path to the All-Star Game, thanks to years in the independent leagues and injuries to his shoulder, knee, and elbow that threatened his career.

Unlike the American League teammates for whom the All-Star Game was routine, Kintzler was aware that he was in a novel situation and grateful for everything, including that the Cleveland coaching staff blocked out the fifth for him.

“It meant a lot,” Kintzler said. “Obviously, for guys like me it could be a once-in-a-lifetime thing.”

Last Tuesday in Miami, Kintzler threw 11 pitches, nine of them for strikes. While he didn’t generate a swing-and-miss, Kintzler did induce ground ball outs from Zack Cozart, Charlie Blackmon, and The Mighty Giancarlo Stanton in order. That’s Kintzler in a nutshell.

The modern closer is supposed to be a strikeout machine, with Craig Kimbrel, Kenley Jansen, and Aroldis Chapman chasing and surpassing the 50 K% mark like it’s the four-minute mile. But while Kintzler pitches mostly off of his fastball, a 94 mph sinker, he’s the furthest thing you could imagine from a strikeout machine. Among the 27 pitchers with 10 or more saves this year, Kintzler ranks tied for dead last in strikeout rate at 15.6 percent. Kintzler’s K/9 of 5.44 would’ve been borderline unsurvivable even for a starter a decade ago; for comparison, both Kimbrel and Dellin Betances are striking out more than three times as many batters per inning as Kintzler.

Craig Kimbrel (AP Images)
Craig Kimbrel (AP Images)

Instead, Kimbrel is the best current version of the traditional closer: A hard-throwing fastball–breaking ball guy who uses his breaking ball as a chase pitch. Kintzler throws his sinker 73.5 percent of the time and is more concerned with getting ahead in the count than with missing bats. Nevertheless, Kintzler is third in baseball in saves, and among pitchers with 10 or more saves, he’s seventh in ERA+ and 11th in opponent OBP.

“If a strikeout comes, then I’ll take it, but I like to make the hitter uncomfortable by being in attack mode,” Kintzler said. “I like to force them to swing, because a lot of guys like to go up there and take some pitches, and they get in good counts. But if I force you to swing early in the count, I can expand the zone and force you to swing at a lot of balls.”

It’s an approach that’s worked so far this year — Kintzler has posted a 206 ERA+ and is holding opponents to a .228/.275/.315 slash line — but it wasn’t always the plan.

Kintzler inherited the closer’s role in Minnesota from Kevin Jepsen, a second-rounder, who inherited it from Glen Perkins, a first-rounder. The Yankees picked Kintzler in the 40th round out of Pasadena City College in 2003. Kintzler thought he could do better, so he transferred to Dixie State College of Utah (it’s complicated) but once more dropped to the 40th round, this time getting picked by the Padres.

Kintzler spent two good but unspectacular seasons in the San Diego organization, never rising above low-A, before a shoulder injury cost him the entire 2006 season and his spot with the Padres. In 2007, Kintzler landed with the Winnipeg Goldeyes of the independent Northern League.

“I thought it was going to be a piece of cake when I went down there,” Kintzler said. “I was 22, I got rookie of the year or whatever, I thought I’d get signed in a heartbeat.”

In fact, it took Kintzler nearly three years of indie ball, two in Winnipeg and a third with the St. Paul Saints, to get back into the MLB pipeline. By this point, Kintzler had no illusions about his chances, but he wouldn’t let himself think about a career outside baseball.

“Going into my third year of independent ball, you start thinking, ‘What else can I possibly do? Is this going to be it?’” Kintzler said. “I wasn’t sold on ‘Do I need a backup plan yet?’ as much as I was sold on ‘I need to give everything I’ve got to this one situation,’ and then figure it out after that.”

Kintzler posted a 2.79 ERA in 80.2 innings for St. Paul, which earned him a job with the Milwaukee Brewers, who sent him to Double-A for nine appearances by the end of the 2009 season. Kintzler made his major league debut on September 10, 2010, at the age of 26.

Brandon Kintzler (AP Images)
Brandon Kintzler (AP Images)

“After I got signed out of there, then I made it to the big leagues the next year, I realized you’re a lot closer than you think you are,” Kintzler said. “I never thought [I’d make the] MLB All-Star Game. I never really thought I’d make the big leagues. I just needed to get healthy to give myself a chance to do it.”

At this point in his career, Kintzler was throwing the sinker and a four-seamer, but his out pitch was a sweeping, mid-80s slider. On May 14, 2011, Kintzler went on the DL with a stress fracture in his elbow and missed the rest of the season. When he started throwing again, he couldn’t get a feel for his slider. The elbow healed, but the out pitch didn’t, leaving him with just the sinker.

It’s possible to get by as a closer on just the fastball — Rivera did it, and Jansen is doing it — but it’s not easy. Most top closers need a breaking pitch or, less common, a changeup to keep hitters off-balance.

“It’s depressing,” Kintzler said of waking up without his slider. “You go out there knowing you’re a one-trick pony, but you’ve just got to make it happen and learn how to pitch with one pitch.”

So he did. Kintzler returned to make 14 appearances for the Brewers in 2012, then 71 in 2013 and 64 in 2014. In 2014, he threw his sinker 72 percent of the time and posted a 117 ERA+, which brought him over three years of service time and resulted in his first million-dollar salary in 2015, a huge deal for someone who maxed out at $1,250 a month in indie ball.

But sometimes pitcher injuries spread from one part of the body to another, as the body tries to compensate for the injury by putting more stress on a different joint, and after pitching in pain for two years, Kintzler finally had surgery after the 2014 season to repair a torn patella tendon.

“You don’t get time to adjust if you’re trying to get outs,” Kintzler said. “The Brewers were trying to rush me back from an elbow surgery, and I didn’t have time to rehab properly, to learn to throw again. Then my knee went as I was coming back from that, so my body never really got to adjust.”

The knee injury caused him to miss June and July of the 2015 season, and when he could pitch, he did it mostly in the minor leagues. At season’s end, the Brewers cut ties with the then-31-year-old, and Kintzler signed a minor league deal with the Twins. By May 2016, armed with his sinker and not much else, he was back in the big leagues.

Kintzler knows how unusual it is for a closer in this day and age to strike out so few batters, but he believes his approach is quite well-suited to attack hitters whose swing planes are designed to put the ball in the air. To compensate, Kintzler likes to get on top of his sinker to force it down at the last second and make it difficult to elevate.

“These guys can adjust to balls that move to the side, but everyone’s trying to lift, so if I create a ball that moves down at the end, that makes them top the ball,” Kintzler said. “That’s why I don’t try to throw a two-seamer, I try to drive a two-seamer.”

Kintzler pitches with the motion you’d use to put a box of cereal back on the top shelf of the pantry, pitching arm extended well over his head, fingers pushing down on the baseball with the aim of fooling the hitter not completely, but just enough to keep him from making solid contact.

“Guys want to hit homers and they want to be the hero,” Kintzler said, “so I take that to my advantage.”

Going out and looking for weak contact is a bit of a high-wire act, as Sam Dyson proved during his disastrous season-opening stint with the Rangers. After saving 38 games in 2016 and making Team USA for the World Baseball Classic, Dyson all of a sudden couldn’t get on top of the ball anymore, and before you could say “José Mesa” he’d racked up three blown saves, three losses, a 27.00 ERA, and a win probability added of minus-2.587 in his first six appearances of the 2017 season. Dyson was eventually traded to the Giants and couldn’t get his ERA below 9.00 until July 1.

The example is not lost on Kintzler. While his predecessor Perkins became famous for embracing data-driven analysis, Kintzler doesn’t want to know much about the hitters he’s facing or his own Statcast numbers. Instead, he operates by feel and tries to get information back on every pitch, making sure he’s following his mechanics and not getting around the side of the ball.

“If I’m getting too quick over the rubber — meaning I’m leaving the rubber too early or getting a little jumpy — I know that it’s going to run a little bit, so I get very quick feedback on what’s happening,” Kintzler said.

Six years after his initial elbow injury, Kintzler says he’s starting to get a feel for his slider again, and he’s using his changeup more, which gives him more options and more room for error.

“I can move my fastball to many different parts of the strike zone, which makes it, really, three or four pitches,” Kintzler said. “Now that my slider’s coming back, I feel like I’ve got weapons now. My changeup’s been pretty good. Feels like I can make a few more mistakes.”

But how many mistakes?

All kinds of oddball pitching acts have thrived as closers over the years, including numerous low-strikeout sinker ballers. Dyson was a superb high-leverage reliever for two and a half years before his 2017 collapse, and last year, Zach Britton allowed just four earned runs in 67 innings. But both Dyson and Britton are bigger than Kintzler, throw harder, strike more people out, and get more ground balls. Britton’s 2016 K% was almost double Kintzler’s this year.

Kintzler aims to throw strikes and induce grounders and weak contact, and he’s good at those things, but not outstanding, by modern relief standards, at any of them. Among 170 qualified relievers in 2017, Kintzler has the 18th-lowest walk rate, and he ranks 35th in ground ball rate and 63rd in soft contact rate. Despite his gaudy save totals and ERA, Kintzler is still playing with fire. FIP, which doesn’t credit pitchers for inducing weak contact, was never going to like a pitcher who doesn’t strike anyone out, but DRA, which is more sophisticated, has Kintzler at 4.24, almost double his actual ERA. To be blunt, every meaningful statistical indicator points against Kintzler continuing to be a top-end closer.

And yet Kintzler’s allowed only one run (unearned), seven hits, and one walk in 12 innings over the past month. He’s converted his past 11 save chances, and hasn’t needed more than 17 pitches to retire the side since May 28. He might be headed for a Dysonesque collapse, but he isn’t there yet.

If identified as such early on, the modern closer usually doesn’t take long to make it to the back end of a big league bullpen. Chapman made it to the major leagues the year he signed with the Reds, while Kimbrel took less than two years. Kintzler looks at that process the way you’d expect a 40th-round pick and three-year indy league veteran to look at it.

“I don’t think they appreciate the grind,” he said of the fast-moving pitching prospects. “They think, ‘Well, I went to the minor leagues.’ They haven’t gone through the minor leagues. Until you’ve been in the bushes, you don’t know. Until you’re taking home food from a minor league game so you can eat the next day, you don’t know what it’s like to grind.”

That grind seems to be the key to Kintzler’s odd blend of self-confidence and self-awareness, the mix of “I know this works” and “I never expected it to.” Having spent his early 20s in the wilderness and having endured severe injuries to three different parts of his body, baseball has nothing to threaten him with anymore. He has nothing to fear.

When a torn labrum limited Perkins to just two innings last year, the Twins planned to use Jepsen as the closer, then altered the plan when Jepsen struggled early, handing the ninth inning to whomever of Kintzler or lefty Fernando Abad fit the matchups better.

“I figured they’d let [Jepsen] get his feet under him again, and with righties coming up they gave me the inning and I did well,” Kintzler said. “They gave me the next situation, and Abad had the next one after that. … I just tried to run with it, because I knew it would probably never happen again.”

Kintzler saved 17 games from Jepsen’s demotion in June through the end of the season. Abad saved one, and was traded to Boston on August 1. Becoming a successful closer was the last significant hurdle on a 13-year journey from junior college to the All-Star Game, and Kintzler still has a hard time accepting it.

“I don’t take myself very seriously, because you’ll get humbled really fast in this game,” Kintzler said. “I know that when you blow a save it’s by far the worst feeling in baseball, and it’s hard to recover from. And the second you say, ‘I’m a big league closer,’ someone comes up and ruins the game for you.”

Kintzler knows how little wiggle room he has, and how steep the drop is if he falters. But he knows the grind too well to do anything but look over the edge and smile.

All stats current through Monday’s games.