Washington Nationals: Brandon Kintzler’s struggles aren’t surprising

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 05: Washington Nationals pitcher Brandon Kintzler
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 05: Washington Nationals pitcher Brandon Kintzler /

Washington Nationals reliever Brandon Kintzler has struggled coming out of the gate. Here’s why Nats fans shouldn’t be surprised at his rough start.

 Washington Nationals reliever Brandon Kintzler is a vital member of the bullpen.  Coming off of his first All-Star appearance with the Minnesota Twins, fans have high hopes for the 33-year-old.

However, his abysmal start to the season is causing some alarm.  His 15.75 ERA is not where anybody wants it.

But his slow start shouldn’t surprise Nats fans.  Coming into this season, Kintzler was a prime candidate for negative regression.

The catalyst for this is Kintzler’s low BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play).  This advanced metric tells how lucky or unlucky a pitcher is.

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A league average BABIP is around .300.  Anything higher generally means a pitcher is unlucky.  A high BABIP means more ground balls find holes in the infield, and more fly balls and line drives touch the outfield grass.  And vice versa for a BABIP under .300.

One constant in Kintzler’s career is a low BABIP.  His best season came in 2013, when he had a .281 BABIP.  Last season he had a .271 BABIP.

Typically, pitchers with Kintzler’s skillset and overall goals on the mound tend to have high BABIP’s.

Kintzler plays to generate ground balls with a nasty sinker. And he did just that.  From 2016-2017, Kintzler’s 58.0 GB% ranks 14th among qualified relievers.

We can see how rare this combination is by looking at the rest of the league.  There is only one relief pitcher in the last two years who pitched more than 75 innings with a GB% over 58% and a BABIP less than .271: Alex Claudio of the Texas Rangers.

Kintzler also benefited from playing with an above average Twins defense.  In Minnesota, Byron Buxton and Brian Dozier won gold gloves for outfield and second base, respectively. The Twins also ranked 10th in FanGraphs’ Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) metric.

So, what does this all mean?  First of all, it’s clear that Kintzler can’t stay lucky forever.  At this stage of his career, Kintzler cannot strike batters out.  He is among the league’s worst in K/9.  Because of that, he needs weak contact and ground balls to get outs.

And the negative regression comes in the form of more balls finding the outfield grass and getting past the infielders.  And this prominently shows itself when it happens multiple times in the same inning.

Kintzler’s Left on Base Percentage in 2018 (34.9%) is more than half of what it was in 2017 (76.9%).

And what’s worse is that Kintzler isn’t generating ground balls. An extremely small sample size is in play, of course.  But Kintzler is allowing almost as many line drives and fly balls (both 30.8%) as he does ground balls (38.5%).

And to top it all off, Kintzler’s four walks this season are nearly as many as the five he allowed with the Nationals last season.

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Perhaps this overreaction is unwarranted.  Again, the sample size for this season is just four innings.  But what was expected to happen coming into this season is unfolding rather quickly.  It’s worth keeping an eye on as this season progresses.