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Brandon Kintzler is an unprecedented closer

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And also maybe not a very good closer

Boston Red Sox v Minnesota Twins
Twins closer Brandon Kintzler brings an unusual skillset to the table
Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

All the headlines from Friday night’s 4-3 come-from-behind win over Boston focused on Joe Mauer, and rightfully so, after the Twins’ first baseman and local boy smacked his first-career walk-off home run.

But if the game had ended differently — if, say, the Red Sox had rallied in the top of the 10th to seal the comeback win — all that ink would have been directed at the Twin who got the team in that mess in the first place: Brandon Kintzler.

Kintzler entered in the ninth with a 3-1 lead, an opportunity to secure his eighth save in eight chances, with his Twins holding a 93% chance of victory at the time, per Baseball Reference.

It did not go according to plan.

The Red Sox BABIP-ed the Twins’ closer to death, as rather routine ground balls from Mitch Moreland and Josh Rutledge became singles before Jackie Bradley moved the duo over with a ground ball of his own and Chris Young knocked them in with a line-shot single down the third-base line.

Watching the game with zero context, one could have come away feeling Kintzler was unlucky. If a few bounces would have gone the other way, he would have escaped unscathed and the Twins wouldn’t have needed Mauer’s bottom-of-the-ninth heroics.

But you make your own luck, and for Kintzler to succeed in any meaningful way as a closer, he’s going to need a heckuva lot of it. Because the thing about Brandon Kintzler is that he can’t miss bats.

This isn’t breaking news.

After Kintzler scuffled through an ultimately successful save opportunity against Oakland on May 2, Twins Daily’s Nick Nelson wrote a prescient (and alliteratively titled) post about Kintzler’s ultra-low BABIP and ultra-high (like literally 100%) strand rate — two indicators a reckoning was coming for Kintzler.

Kintzler’s main problem is his utter inability to miss bats.

Last season, Kintzler finished 124th out of 130 qualified relievers (50 innings minimum) in Contact Rate, per Nelson, and this year he’s missing even less lumber: entering Sunday’s series finale against the Red Sox, Kintzler is 183rd out of 184 qualified relievers in Contact Rate, ahead of only Sam Dyson, who flamed out spectacularly to start the season before losing his closer’s job and hitting the DL. Swinging Strike Percentage? Kintzler is also 183rd out of 184, again ahead of only Dyson.

Kintzler could never really miss bats or strike batters out, but he’s even worse this season than last.

Image via Fangraphs
Image via Fangraphs

Twins fans likely don’t require sagacious blog posts or advanced statistics to notice that Brandon Kintzler lacks swing-and-miss stuff. The chyron below his name Friday night told most of the story and portended poor things for Kintzler and the Twins.

Screenshot via MLB.tv; red ink via Louie’s tremendous skill

Kintzler’s bat-finding ways undid him on Friday, primarily because Kintzler lacks a put-away pitch to help him from strike two two strike three.

To begin the inning, Kintzler got Mitch Moreland in a hole, down 1-2 with nobody on.

Here’s what Kintzler, professional closer, threw up 1-2 in the count to Moreland.

Sure, that play could have been made by Sano and would have been made, ironically, if there hadn’t been a shift. But, regardless of the ultimate outcome, Kintzler grooved an eminently hittable pitch up 1-2 in the count. This is where you’re supposed to go for the killshot, and Kintzler lacked one in his arsenal.

After Rutledge singled, Jackie Bradley came to the plate.

Kintzler once again worked the count to his favor, also putting Bradley in a 1-2 hole. Kintzler’s 1-2 delivery to Bradley was awfully similar to his offering to Moreland — a belt-high fastball down the middle.

Bradley probably should have deposited that pitch in the seats, and Kintzler seemed to know he didn’t have a pitch that could put Bradley away.

That is the look of a man bereft of ideas.

Ultimately, Kintzler’s idea was to throw the exact same pitch that Bradley had just fouled off; it worked out far better than it could have, as Bradley grounded out to Brian Dozier, but it did put two runners in scoring position with only one out.

On Young’s game-tying hit, the biggest of the night until Mauer smashed his walk-off into the bullpen, Kintzler also got to two strikes and also responded by grooving a fastball.

Look: I know I’m not saying anything earth-shattering here. Kintzler’s contact-heavy and strikeout-light ways are well documented.

But I wanted to see just how unusual Kintzler is, as a modern closer with no strikeout stuff.

To the tables!

Using Baseball Reference’s glorious Play Index, I searched for relievers with 30 or more saves in a single season — a number Kintzler should hit comfortably if he remains closer — and a strikeout rate of 12% (Kintzler’s rate entering Friday’s game; it’s since dropped) or lower.

There are 11 player seasons in baseball history where said player managed more than 30 saves with a Kintzleresque strikeout rate, and none of them happened particularly recently.

Closers who can't K

Player Season Team K% Saves ERA ERA+ FIP K-BB%
Player Season Team K% Saves ERA ERA+ FIP K-BB%
Dan Quisenberry ‘83 KCR 9.0 45 1.94 210 2.86 6.9
Dan Quisenberry ‘84 KCR 8.1 44 2.64 152 3.42 5.7
Danny Kolb ‘04 MIL 8.9 39 2.98 147 3.94 2.5
Todd Jones ‘06 DET 10.3 37 3.94 115 3.74 6.3
Dan Quisenberry ‘85 KCR 10.2 37 2.37 174 3.05 7.1
Dan Quisenberry ‘82 KCR 8.7 35 2.57 159 3.45 6.4
Wayne Granger ‘70 CIN 10.8 35 2.66 158 3.50 3.1
Ron Perranoski ‘70 MIN 11.7 34 2.43 156 3.63 2.8
Bob Stanley ‘83 BOS 10.8 33 2.85 153 3.33 4.5
Dan Quisenberry ‘80 KCR 7.0 33 3.09 130 3.34 1.9
Greg Minton ‘82 SFG 11.7 30 1.83 196 3.38 3.2
Brandon Kintzler ‘17 MIN 10.7 TBD 2.70 134 4.46 1.8

Aside from Quiz, that’s not exactly an illustrious list. But Kintzler’s strikeout rate is higher than all but two of his Table Compatriots’ seasons; perhaps Kintzler’s stuff is actually potent enough after all.

However, I did leave out some vital contextual information so as to create Table Drama.

Not sure if you’ve heard this, but more batters are striking out than ever; 2017 boasts the highest strikeout rate of all time, just beating 2016, which just beat out 2015, which just beat out 2014, which just beat out 2013, and so on and so forth. Kinda like the whole “Warmest Year on Record” thing.

Image via Fangraphs

Given this added context, let’s see how Kintzler rates to his fellow bat-finding closers.

Closers’ K-Differential

Player Season Team K% League K% K% +/-
Player Season Team K% League K% K% +/-
Brandon Kintzler ‘17 MIN 10.7 21.6 -10.9
Danny Kolb ‘04 MIL 8.9 16.9 -8.0
Todd Jones ‘06 DET 10.3 16.8 -6.5
Dan Quisenberry ‘84 KCR 8.1 14.0 -5.9
Dan Quisenberry ‘80 KCR 7.0 12.5 -5.5
Dan Quisenberry ‘83 KCR 9.0 13.5 -4.5
Dan Quisenberry ‘82 KCR 8.7 13.2 -4.5
Wayne Granger ‘70 CIN 10.8 15.0 -4.2
Dan Quisenberry ‘85 KCR 10.2 14.0 -3.8
Ron Perranoski ‘70 MIN 11.7 15.0 -3.3
Bob Stanley ‘83 BOS 10.8 13.5 -2.7
Greg Minton ‘82 SFG 11.7 13.2 -1.5

Well, I’ll be. Kintzler is striking out half as many batters as the league in 2017. Kintzler’s differential is even worse when compared to relievers, who are striking out a staggering 23.1% of batters.

To be fair, this sample has a baked-in bias: do guys with more strikeouts and swings-and-misses actually make for better closers? Or do managers simply select harder-throwing, strikeout-heavy pitchers to staff the back end of the bullpen?

All of this to say: it’s not that Brandon Kintzler can’t be a successful closer in 2017. It’s that, if he is, he will be an entirely unprecedented one