The Lurking Late-Inning Limbo
Image courtesy of Jordan Johnson, USA TodayNo one can take away from Brandon Kintzler what he has accomplished in the closer role thus far. He was extremely reliable after taking over for Glen Perkins last year, at least up until a September slide, and he's been nails over the first four weeks of 2017.
Through 12 appearances Kintzler has held opponents to a .227 average while converting all seven of his save chances. He has shown tremendous poise on the mound, buckling down in tense situations and making big pitches when needed.
But poise only goes so far, and ultimately there are a number of signs suggesting that the veteran righty is on precarious footing in the ninth inning. Entering Wednesday's game, he had been benefiting from a .188 BABIP, stranding 100 percent of base-runners. Those kinds of fortuitous trends simply do not sustain, and we saw a glimpse of it in his rocky ninth inning against Oakland last night.
This isn't to say a complete collapse is necessarily imminent, but the same weaknesses that always made Kintzler an iffy bet for the closer job persist, and eventually they're going to become problematic.
Mainly, there is the sky-high contact rate.
Last year, Kintzler finished 124th out of 130 relievers (min 50 IP) in K-rate at 15.6 percent. Early this year he has moved in the wrong direction despite an uptick in velocity, with his six strikeouts in 12 1/3 innings equating to a 12 percent clip.
When so many batters are putting the ball in play, hits are going to start bleeding through even if you're limiting hard contact and getting ground balls. Again, this doesn't mean Kintzler is going to fall off a cliff, because he has some legit skills that compensate for the lack of whiffs. But when you're relying on batted balls finding gloves so much, there are inevitably going to be costly mishaps with the stakes so high and the margins so thin.
I feel he's better suited for a middle relief or setup role and I do believe that eventually the Twins are going to reach the same conclusion. It might take some turbulence to get there, but unless Kintzler can fundamentally change his peripheral composition, it's almost bound to happen.
And when it does, where do the Twins go? This leads us to a more troubling matter, which is the lack of quality late-inning depth behind Kintzler.
Ryan Pressly was bringing gas in spring training, leading some to conclude he might succeed Kintzler in the closer role at some point this summer. Pressly is indeed throwing harder than ever this season, with a lively fastball averaging nearly 96 MPH in April, but he's still failing to establish himself as a truly dominant reliever.
Last year Pressly's numbers were more good than great and he appears to be headed down that same path. His slider, despite its premium velocity, hasn't been a very strong pitch for him and he's been reluctant to throw it. And opponents are generating hard contact, with six of the nine hits he's allowed going for extra bases.
Tyler Duffey might have the stuff for the task, but the team still seems to be wavering on his destiny as a starter or reliever. Matt Belisle is making a case for less leverage instead of more, with his best asset – control – looking shaky in the early going (with seven walks, he has already matched year's total in 40 appearances). Michael Tonkin is probably on the verge of being designated for assignment.
So we turn to the minors. JT Chargois is the best candidate in line to take over a ninth-inning role, given that he's done it successfully at every level. He's a closer in waiting. But now he's on the disabled list with an elbow impingement, which sounds a little ominous for someone who's had his battles with arm issues. Tyler Jay, another former collegiate closer who seemingly moved onto the fast track when the organization switched him back to a relief role this spring, still hasn't pitched in a game due to biceps tendinitis.
A promising relief pipeline stalling out due to health and performance setbacks? Stop me if you've heard it before.
One way or another, the Twins need some options to emerge. The back end of the bullpen is likely to become a problem soon and right now there is a shortage of options available to address it.
- rukavina, Deduno Abides and David HK like this