Chronicling Brandon Kintzler's transformation from doghouse to circle of trust in Cubs bullpen

Chronicling Brandon Kintzler's transformation from doghouse to circle of trust in Cubs bullpen

Brandon Kintzler's 2019 season has been night and day compared to his debut campaign in Chicago last year.

It's still very early in the season, but the veteran reliever never had even a small sample size where he pitched this well in a Cubs uniform in 2018.

As the Cubs begin their series with the Marlins in Miami Monday night, Kintzler leads the bullpen in appearances (7), innings (7.2), strikeouts (9), WHIP (0.52) and is second in ERA (3.52) behind only Allen Webster (who has pitched just 3 innings). His lone mistake was a 3-run homer surrendered to Eric Thames in Milwaukee and he's the only Cubs reliever who hasn't walked a batter.

That's a far cry from the 25 games he pitched with the Cubs after a midseason trade a year ago, posting a 7.00 ERA and 2.00 WHIP in 18 innings. 

What we're seeing in 2019 is a lot more indicative of the pitcher Kintzler's been in his career prior to 2018 — 3.16 ERA, 1.23 WHIP in 291 career appearances.

"I threw like crap last year," Kintzler said. "Every once in a while, I'd make a good pitch, but I wasn't consistent enough to go, 'Oh, I'm having bad luck.' I just wasn't throwing well. Last year to me, it's just a wash. This year is a new year and every day is a new day."

So why was last year a wash? 

For starters, there was the rumor that Nationals GM Mike Rizzo traded away Kintzler last summer because he felt the veteran reliever was a bad influence in the clubhouse and was leaking information to the outside world. 

Kintzler has been adamant he wasn't the problem and has also admitted the negative rumor weighed on him in the final months of 2018, when he was supposed to be trying to fit in a new clubhouse and help the Cubs in a pennant race.

"I think the drama of my trade last year, you couldn't really be yourself because there's all this media about whatever they tried to say I did [in Washington]," he said. "It kinda hurt. It messes with your mind a little bit so you don't really wanna be yourself."

This spring training was huge for Kintzler, because he got to know his Cubs teammates and coaches under completely different — and better — circumstances. 

That includes first-year pitching coach Tommy Hottovy, who won over Kintzler immediately when he went out to the reliever's home outside Las Vegas in December. Hottovy was in Vegas with the Cubs front office as part of MLB Winter Meetings and took a quick detour to watch Kintzler throw in the offseason.

The Cubs declined Kintzler's $10 million team option earlier in the winter, but the reliever had a $5 million player option that he exercised, so he was already on the books and a part of the bullpen. It was a matter of making sure 2018 was the aberration and he and the Cubs could get him back to his pre-2018 form.

Kintzler said Hottovy's visit meant a lot to him. Instead of the new pitching coach simply writing off the veteran as a lost cause based on the 2018 struggles, he instead believed in him and that's made all the difference.

Because of that, Hottovy earned Kintzler's trust and he used that relationship to fine-tune Kintzler's mechanics. 

"Tommy simplified my delivery," Kintzler said. "He's got my body and my arm slot back. He's getting my body in a good place to repeat my delivery. We got my arm slot back to where I needed to be from a couple years ago. When you feel comfortable where your body's at, you don't need to think about anything else — you can just go. 

"If I just worry about throwing strikes and I'm not worried about where my hands are or what my arm's doing, it makes my job a lot easier. Especially for me, I'm a very emotional, aggressive guy when I'm out there. So if I can just use my emotions to my strength, I think that's more on my side."

Kintzler and Hottovy worked on the new delivery throughout the spring and the first step was paring down a leg kick. Kintzler said he immediately gained three inches of sink in his next outing and continued to trend in the right direction from there. That's huge for a groundball pitcher who doesn't get a lot of strikeouts (6.2 career K/9). 

"He's shortened his movements up and with that, the command has been a lot better with great sink," Joe Maddon said. "He's got his delivery under control — that's it. Otherwise, everything looks the same to me."

Kintzler's resurgence has come at a very important time for a Cubs bullpen that began the year without Brandon Morrow and was forced to send Carl Edwards Jr. down to the minor leagues barely a week into the season. The Cubs are also without Mike Montgomery (lat injury) and Brian Duensing (designated for assignment during spring training) in the bullpen and a pair of veterans they signed over the winter — Xavier Cedeno and Tony Barnette — are still recovering from their respective injuries. 

Newcomer Brad Brach has had some good outings out of the bullpen, but he's also struggled badly with his command — 10 walks in 6.2 innings — which leaves essentially only Kintzler, Steve Cishek and Pedro Strop firmly within Maddon's circle of trust. 

For a bullpen with major control issues thus far, Kintzler's control stands out even more.

"I'm in attack mode and making action happen and forcing the issue," he said. "The main thing is just throwing strikes. If I'm in the zone, throwing strikes, more than likely, it's gonna go my way."

As he decides what's next, it's clear Ben Zobrist has something left in the tank

As he decides what's next, it's clear Ben Zobrist has something left in the tank

When Ben Zobrist rejoined the Cubs active roster on Sept. 1, it was fair to wonder how much he could provide offensively. After all, he spent the previous four months on the restricted list while tending to a family matter, last playing a big-league game on May 6.

Zobrist did no baseball activities from May to mid-July, only working out to stay in shape. Although he eventually ramped things up, he played in just 12 minor league rehab games in August before returning to the Cubs, a small number compared to the length of his absence.

Even Zobrist admitted upon his big-league return that his timing at the plate wasn’t where he wanted it to be. And yet, what he did in September was nothing short of impressive. In 21 games, he posted a .284/.377/.388 slash line, performing at a level many couldn’t have expected, considering the circumstances.

Zobrist's impact on the Cubs' lineup goes beyond what you see in the box score, however. Not only is he a switch hitter with some pop, but he has a keen eye for the strike zone and frequently puts together professional at-bats.

On a Cubs team that tends to expand the zone, Zobrist’s presence mattered. In his second game back, for example, he went 3-for-3 with two walks, helping the Cubs beat the Brewers 10-5. After the game, Brewers starter Chase Anderson pointed out how different the Cubs' lineup looks with Zobrist in it.

"They play the matchups really well and Zobrist makes that team so much better," Anderson said on Sept. 5. "Just bringing his presence to the top of the lineup, it changes their dynamic a little bit."

Where Zobrist stands entering 2020, though, is currently unclear.

Zobrist is set to hit free agency after the World Series and will turn 39 next May. Therefore, it’s possible that he’s played his last game in the big leagues, as he has little, if anything, left to prove at this stage in his career.

Ahead of the Cubs’ season finale on Sept. 29, Zobrist told reporters in St. Louis that he hasn’t thought about how much time he’ll take before deciding what’s next for him. His family situation will obviously play a big role in his decision, but if September showed anything, it's that he still has something left in the tank.

“I’m 38 but I got that feeling all over again,” Zobrist said following the Cubs’ season finale, a 9-0 loss to the Cardinals in which he pitched a scoreless inning. “Just really fun, you know? It’s a fun game. Sometimes you don’t come out on the winning end, but you still gotta have fun with it and enjoy it. I enjoyed it today."

The Cubs roster is expected to undergo changes this offseason, with center field, second base and the leadoff spot being just a few areas the team will look to address. The latter two spots became revolving doors during Zobrist’s absence, as the Cubs struggled to replace what he brought offensively.

Zobrist is past the point in his career of being an everyday player. However, he still could be a useful asset for the Cubs in a supporting role, bringing his veteran approach to the lineup when he plays while still offering an experienced voice in the clubhouse.

“I take a lot of joy in that role, just being a supporting guy and being a part of winning clubs and part of winning atmospheres and cultures,” Zobrist said on Sept. 29. “The Chicago Cubs have been that since I’ve been around. This year we didn’t make the playoffs — we still have a winning record — (but) the kind of relationships that are built here and the culture that’s been built here is definitely a winning one.”

After the Cubs announced that they wouldn’t retain Joe Maddon for 2020, Zobrist acknowledged that more changes were likely coming in the offseason. Only time will tell what that means for the veteran utilityman — should he continue playing.

Whether he retires or joins a different team for 2020, though, Zobrist will look back on his four seasons with the Cubs fondly.

“(They’re) just the most passionate fans I’ve ever met,” he said of Cubs fans. “They’re very loyal, very passionate and it’s been such a pleasure to be a part of that team that beat the curse back in ’16, so I feel that still, when I see Cubs fans, there’s a lot of them that hug me and thank me for being a part of that.

“I’ll always look back at [my] time here — I don’t know what’s going to happen in the offseason — but look back at these four years and [be] very grateful to be able to be part of a group like this and be able to do what we did while I was here.”

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Cubs Talk Podcast: An ode to Joe Maddon and looking to the next era

USA Today

Cubs Talk Podcast: An ode to Joe Maddon and looking to the next era

On the latest Cubs Talk Podcast, Tony Andracki, Kelly Crull, Scott Changnon and Jeff Nelson give us their memories of Joe Maddon's time with the Cubs and discuss David Ross and Joe Espada's candidacy to be the next manager.

01:30 Kelly's memories of Joe from the perspective of a reporter

06:00 Going back to Hazleton with Joe

07:45 Joe's legacy as manager of the Cubs

16:00 How Joe impacted Javy Baez' career

18:00 David Ross and Joe Espada may be the leaders to replace Joe Maddon.

Listen here or via the embedded player below:


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