Where would the Cubs bullpen have been this season without Brandon Kintzler?
Considering how Kintzler’s Cubs career started, such a question may have seemed ludicrous entering 2019. The Cubs acquired the right-hander from the Nationals ahead of the 2018 trade deadline, hoping he’d bolster their bullpen. That, of course, isn’t how things played out.
Kintzler struggled to acclimate himself on a Cubs team battling for the NL Central title, allowing 14 runs in 18 innings (7.00 ERA). Consequentially, the Cubs declined his $10 team option for 2019, though he returned after picking up his $5 million player option. Regardless, he entered spring training with no guarantee of making the Cubs Opening Day roster.
Even after earning a spot on the team, Kintzler entered the season as somewhat of an afterthought. The sinkerballer was low on the Cubs’ initial reliever totem pole, which looked something like this:
Carl Edwards Jr.
Nothing is more fickle in MLB than the composition of one’s bullpen. Whether it be due to injury, bad performances, new acquisitions or some combination of the three, bullpens frequently face turnover, both in-season and the offseason.
For the 2019 Cubs, part of that fickle nature featured a reshuffling of the reliever hierarchy. Of the Opening Day group, only Strop, Cishek, Chatwood and Kintzler finished the season with the Cubs, with Kintzler taking over as setup man and entrenching himself as team's most reliable bullpen arm.
"I was thinking about that when I was warming up, like 'Man, before I didn't know if I was gonna make the team, now I'm closing out one of the last games,” Kintzler said on Sept. 28, after he recorded his lone save of the season. “It's just crazy how baseball is, as far as having a bounce back year after getting traded here.”
Kintzler pitched in 62 games in 2019 (No. 3 on Cubs, behind Kyle Ryan and Steve Cishek), posting a 2.68 ERA (second by Cubs relievers with at least 30 appearances). He also stymied opponents in high leverage spots, allowing just seven of the 32 runners he inherited (21.9 percent) to score.
Although Kintzler’s ERA jumped from 1.98 pre-All-Star break (37 games) to 3.92 afterwards (25 games), that can be attributed, at least partially, to right pec and left oblique injuries that sidelined him in August and September, respectively.
Injury woes aside, Kintzler’s success was no guarantee entering this season.
At the end of 2018, Kintzler admitted that he was struggling both mechanically and mentally, a double-whammy that can really mess with a pitcher’s performance. Kintzler deserves credit for figuring things out and bouncing back this season, though he also pointed to Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy as a major contributor behind his successful 2019 season.
“...[I'm] grateful for how Tommy helped me out and the situations they gave me. To be able to pitch in good situations to come back. I thank Tommy a lot.”
Kintzler is set to his free agency after the postseason wraps up, and although he turned 35 in August, he proved that he’s still a valuable pitcher. In an era where home runs are as prevalent as ever, Kintzler’s 54.7 groundball rate from 2019 certainly plays. This is especially true when pitching at Wrigley Field, where the wind carries home runs out of the park left and right.
Whether he returns in 2020 is to be determined, but Kintzler made it clear how much he's appreciated pitching for the Cubs.
"I don't think you can ever take it for granted what it's like to pitch in front of 40,000 [fans] every day," he said. "Even in a Wednesday day game or whatever day games we play. It's an amazing experience. Even that last series agaisnt the Cardinals, that was nuts, but it was crazy to watch. It was a lot of fun to watch.
"Hopefully I can be a part of something like that again. I've played in many organizations now and you just don't get that feeling from fans like that all the time, so it was awesome."Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream Cubs games easily on your device.