Brandon Kintzler’s surest path to another season in the major leagues would have been to accept a guaranteed contract, albeit for less money than he was due to make last year, and reprise his role as a late-inning relief pitcher for the Miami Marlins.
But that would’ve required too much pride swallowing, even for a two-time 40th-round draft pick who has been released, traded (twice), and relegated to independent ball in a 17-year pro career.
“I was pretty hurt at the end of last year that [the Marlins] didn’t pick up my option,” Kintzler said Friday in a phone interview. “It would’ve been really hard for me to go back there. I feel like I would’ve been crawling back to them. I didn’t want to do that.”
So, at age 36, Kintzler signed a minor-league deal with the Phillies and reported last week to Clearwater, Fla., to compete as a nonroster invitee for a spot in a bullpen that is being remade after a historically terrible season.
He made a bet on himself. It isn’t the first time.
Kintzler’s entire pitching philosophy has been based on calculated risks. He doesn’t throw 100 mph, or even 95. Among 198 relievers who worked a minimum of 50 innings in the last two seasons, he ranked 151st in average velocity (92.3). He joked that he tried to get fresh air during the Marlins’ weeklong COVID-19 quarantine in Philadelphia last summer by throwing a baseball through his bolted-shut hotel room window.
“Didn’t work,” he said, laughing.
Kintzler has survived, even thrived, for parts of 11 seasons in the majors not by racking up strikeouts but rather by understanding how to use his strengths as a sinkerballer to navigate a lineup. It’s about using his head in lieu of a blazing heater. It’s knowing which hitters to avoid and which to attack, numbers be damned.
Over the years, Kintzler’s detractors have dinged him for an occasionally high walk rate (10.9% last year) or inflated WHIP (1.315 in 2020). He doesn’t care. Even in a tight game, he said he’s unafraid to walk a batter to get to a better matchup, no matter if the on-deck hitter is more fearsome.
Case in point: With one out, the Marlins leading by one run, and a wild-card berth in the balance on Sept. 25 at Yankee Stadium, Kintzler put the winning run on base by walking Clint Frazier in order to face DJ LeMahieu. Never mind that LeMahieu was about to clinch the batting title in an MVP-worthy season. Kintzler believed he could get him to hit the ball on the ground.
Four pitches later, LeMahieu grounded into a double play.
“Everyone thinks it’s crazy, but [LeMahieu] was just a more comfortable at-bat for me,” Kintzler said. “Even if he hits a base hit to right, I’m OK with that because I know what he’s trying to do. I would rather face a guy that I’ve already had success against than face a kid that I have no idea how to pitch against and then he gets me, and I’m like, ‘That was stupid. I could’ve just faced the guy on deck.’”
Kintzler didn’t always think that way. But former closer Eddie Guardado, his bullpen coach with the Minnesota Twins, helped him realize that achieving the bottom-line result of protecting leads is more important for a late-inning reliever than how he does it.
“The more save opportunities I had I realized I don’t need a great WHIP for us to win a game. I just need to win a game,” Kintzler said. “You’ve got to take your numbers out the window and realize, if I have to walk a guy and my SIERA, or whatever the hell they call it, goes up, it doesn’t matter.
“We got to the playoffs last year and my walk rate was probably the highest it’s ever been. But I got the job done. No one’s mad about that walk anymore.”
The Phillies can use that veteran savvy. Even after signing free agent Archie Bradley, bringing back Héctor Neris, and trading for lefty José Alvarado, they’re light on relievers with long track records.
Few relievers have been more consistent than Kintzler in the last five years. He had a 2.22 ERA and finished second in the National League with 12 saves (in 14 opportunities) for the Marlins last year. In 2019, he had a 2.68 ERA in 62 games for the Chicago Cubs. Since 2016, he has a 3.26 ERA.
“We’re happy to have Kintzler,” Phillies president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski said last week. “He’s somebody that comes in as an established bullpen guy that can come in and help us and battle for a job. We’re hopeful that he’ll contribute.”
Bryce Harper, who lives across town from Kintzler in Las Vegas and befriended him as a teammate with the Washington Nationals in 2017, played a role in the Phillies’ recruiting pitch. But it didn’t take much enticement for Kintzler to recognize the opportunity that would be available to win a job in camp. He saw firsthand the combustibility of the bullpen in 10 meetings between the Phillies and Marlins.
“I think they would’ve won the division last year if they would’ve had a better bullpen,” Kintzler said. “This is a challenge I’m actually looking forward to. The risk was very worth it to me.”
The reward wouldn’t be bad, either.
Kintzler can opt out of his contract on March 24 if the Phillies don’t intend to put him on the opening-day roster. But if he makes the team, his base salary will be $3 million. He also could earn $1 million in performance bonuses, which would push his overall compensation to $4 million, the value of the option declined by the Marlins.
“It’s a good situation to try to get back to the playoffs,” Kintzler said. “I don’t know how many years I have left, so I want to get a chance to win. I wanted to go somewhere where somebody really wanted me.”