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Brandon Kintzler, strikeouts and expectations

Kintzler was arguably the best Brewers reliever in 2013, but can he repeat that performance?

Mike McGinnis

He hasn't drawn a lot of attention this winter, but it's possible one of the Brewers facing the most pressure in 2013 is setup man Brandon Kintzler. The former independent leaguer was a revelation in 2013, pitching in 71 games and posting a 2.69 ERA over 77 innings. Last year was the first time he had ever made more than 14 appearances in an MLB season.

So we've established that Kintzler was very good in 2013, but is it reasonable to expect him to perform at that level again in 2014? The answer to that question may depend on his strikeout rate.

Consider, for a moment, this statistic. Since 2010, 19 right handed pitchers (eliminating LOOGYs from the data) have had a season where they met all of the following criteria:

  • 65 or more relief appearances (Kintzler had 71)
  • An ERA under 3 (Kintzler's was 2.69)
  • Seven or fewer strikeouts per nine innings (Kintzler had 6.8)

That's 19 pitchers over four seasons of data. So clearly this happens from time to time. But the more telling number is this: Of those 19 pitchers, only two have done it more than once. Diamondbacks reliever Brad Ziegler has done it in each of the last three seasons, and Orioles closer Jim Johnson did it in 2011 and 2012. The other 17 can be split into two groups, pitchers who improved their strikeout rates or pitchers who became less effective.

The bad comps

The name on the latter list that jumped out at me was former Blue Jays and Cubs reliever Shawn Camp. He earned a spot on the list in 2010 by posting a 2.99 ERA despite just 5.7 strikeouts per nine. The next year his strikeouts dropped further (to 4.3 per nine) and his ERA was up over 4. Since 2010, Camp has made 173 appearances with a 4.31 mark.

Luis Ayala is another guy on the list who declined, although his fall wasn't as precipitous. His ERA went up from 2.64 with the Orioles in 2012, when he made the list, to 3.27 between Baltimore and Atlanta in 2013. The Nationals just signed him as a minor league free agent earlier today.

Speaking of the Nationals, Ryan Mattheus is another guy on the list. He had a great season in relief in 2012 but turned into a pumpkin in 2013, posting a 6.37 ERA and continuing to strike out less than six batters per nine. Jared Hughes also had a nice season for the Pirates in 2012 before coming undone in 2013.

The improvements

On the other end of the spectrum, we have a guy like Joe Smith. Smith was only on the list for one season in 2011, but that's because he got too many strikeouts to qualify in 2012 and 2013. He has a 2.42 ERA in 213 appearances since 2011 and recently signed a three-year deal with the Angels.

Darren O'Day also qualified in 2010, then missed most of the 2011 season due to injury. He bounced back in a big way over the last two seasons as an Oriole, though, striking out around nine batters per nine with a 2.23 ERA over 137 appearances.

Wilton Lopez matched the criteria in the NL in 2010 with the Astros, but like Smith and O'Day he improved his strikeouts and his overall performance followed over the next two seasons. Lopez is interesting because his strikeouts went back down with the Rockies in 2013, and so did his results (4.06 ERA).

Finally, Ramon Ramirez joined this group as a member of the Red Sox and Giants in 2010. His strikeout numbers climbed to 8.7 per nine in 2011 and he had his best MLB season. Unfortunately, improving his K rate didn't prevent him from having health issues in 2012 and 2013.

The conclusion

Brandon Kintzler was very effective in his first full season as a Brewer, but history shows that not many right handed relievers can remain effective with his strikeout rate. Punching out a few more batters in 2014 will go a long way towards making him one of this team's best relievers.