Salt Intensifies: Seasoned Veteran Brandon Kintzler Adding Better Flavor in 2019
The Cubs were looking hard for bullpen help in July 2018, even before an injury to closer Brandon Morrow made the need more urgent. Finally, Chicago opted for another Brandon, Kintzler in this case, trading minor league reliever Jhon Romero to the Nationals for the veteran righty on July 31.
Kintzler was fresh off an All-Star season in 2017 split between Washington and the Minnesota Twins. In 42.2 innings before the trade, the groundball specialist had a 3.59 ERA and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 2.38, just about in line with his career numbers. The Cubs felt secure being on the hook for his future money, even if they declined a $10 million team option and he activated his $5 million player option for 2019.
But when he came to the Windy City, Kintzler, who was 33 years old at the time, completely fell apart. His groundball rate actually went up in 18 innings of work, from 48% with the Nationals to 53%, but his 8.4% walk rate was well above his career average (6.3%) and his K/BB ratio shrunk to just 1.33. He allowed 14 runs on 27 hits (three homers) and couldn’t be trusted in high-leverage situations.
Needless to say, Cubs fans were not pleased to see the former closer and his suddenly onerous contract back in the ‘pen for 2019.
Turns out the only person not grumbling was Salt (yes, that really is his nickname). Through 16.2 innings in 2019, he has allowed just four runs on nine hits while only walking two. Things look even better when you consider that four hits and three runs came in one bad outing. He is striking out more than a batter per inning (9.13 K/(), much higher than his career rate (6.28). The big question is: Can he keep this terrific start up?
Some of his peripherals do raise cause for concern, like an amazingly low .194 batting average on balls in play, that sits well below his .261 career average. Kintzler has also stranded 88.4% of baserunners in 2019, above his typical 76% rate. Both of those numbers indicate that he will start allowing more hits and runs as the season progresses.
There are, however, some signs that Kintzler can be an effective member of the relief corps all season long. His groundball rate is back up to his career norm of 55%, indicating his small sample size decline with the Cubs last year was likely a fluke. He is also throwing his changeup more than ever before in his career and it is generating a lot of swinging strikes. If he keeps relying on that pitch, he may see his strikeout total stay above league average.
While I don’t think Salt can maintain his delicious start to 2019, I think he could easily repeat his quality 2017 effort that made him the Twins closer. Here’s to hoping he does, because it never hurts to have a seasoned veteran in the bullpen.