Brandon Kintzler's 2019 season has been night and day compared to his debut campaign in Chicago last year.
It's still very early in the season, but the veteran reliever never had even a small sample size where he pitched this well in a Cubs uniform in 2018.
As the Cubs begin their series with the Marlins in Miami Monday night, Kintzler leads the bullpen in appearances (7), innings (7.2), strikeouts (9), WHIP (0.52) and is second in ERA (3.52) behind only Allen Webster (who has pitched just 3 innings). His lone mistake was a 3-run homer surrendered to Eric Thames in Milwaukee and he's the only Cubs reliever who hasn't walked a batter.
That's a far cry from the 25 games he pitched with the Cubs after a midseason trade a year ago, posting a 7.00 ERA and 2.00 WHIP in 18 innings.
What we're seeing in 2019 is a lot more indicative of the pitcher Kintzler's been in his career prior to 2018 — 3.16 ERA, 1.23 WHIP in 291 career appearances.
"I threw like crap last year," Kintzler said. "Every once in a while, I'd make a good pitch, but I wasn't consistent enough to go, 'Oh, I'm having bad luck.' I just wasn't throwing well. Last year to me, it's just a wash. This year is a new year and every day is a new day."
So why was last year a wash?
For starters, there was the rumor that Nationals GM Mike Rizzo traded away Kintzler last summer because he felt the veteran reliever was a bad influence in the clubhouse and was leaking information to the outside world.
Kintzler has been adamant he wasn't the problem and has also admitted the negative rumor weighed on him in the final months of 2018, when he was supposed to be trying to fit in a new clubhouse and help the Cubs in a pennant race.
"I think the drama of my trade last year, you couldn't really be yourself because there's all this media about whatever they tried to say I did [in Washington]," he said. "It kinda hurt. It messes with your mind a little bit so you don't really wanna be yourself."
This spring training was huge for Kintzler, because he got to know his Cubs teammates and coaches under completely different — and better — circumstances.
That includes first-year pitching coach Tommy Hottovy, who won over Kintzler immediately when he went out to the reliever's home outside Las Vegas in December. Hottovy was in Vegas with the Cubs front office as part of MLB Winter Meetings and took a quick detour to watch Kintzler throw in the offseason.
The Cubs declined Kintzler's $10 million team option earlier in the winter, but the reliever had a $5 million player option that he exercised, so he was already on the books and a part of the bullpen. It was a matter of making sure 2018 was the aberration and he and the Cubs could get him back to his pre-2018 form.
Kintzler said Hottovy's visit meant a lot to him. Instead of the new pitching coach simply writing off the veteran as a lost cause based on the 2018 struggles, he instead believed in him and that's made all the difference.
Because of that, Hottovy earned Kintzler's trust and he used that relationship to fine-tune Kintzler's mechanics.
"Tommy simplified my delivery," Kintzler said. "He's got my body and my arm slot back. He's getting my body in a good place to repeat my delivery. We got my arm slot back to where I needed to be from a couple years ago. When you feel comfortable where your body's at, you don't need to think about anything else — you can just go.
"If I just worry about throwing strikes and I'm not worried about where my hands are or what my arm's doing, it makes my job a lot easier. Especially for me, I'm a very emotional, aggressive guy when I'm out there. So if I can just use my emotions to my strength, I think that's more on my side."
Kintzler and Hottovy worked on the new delivery throughout the spring and the first step was paring down a leg kick. Kintzler said he immediately gained three inches of sink in his next outing and continued to trend in the right direction from there. That's huge for a groundball pitcher who doesn't get a lot of strikeouts (6.2 career K/9).
"He's shortened his movements up and with that, the command has been a lot better with great sink," Joe Maddon said. "He's got his delivery under control — that's it. Otherwise, everything looks the same to me."
Kintzler's resurgence has come at a very important time for a Cubs bullpen that began the year without Brandon Morrow and was forced to send Carl Edwards Jr. down to the minor leagues barely a week into the season. The Cubs are also without Mike Montgomery (lat injury) and Brian Duensing (designated for assignment during spring training) in the bullpen and a pair of veterans they signed over the winter — Xavier Cedeno and Tony Barnette — are still recovering from their respective injuries.
Newcomer Brad Brach has had some good outings out of the bullpen, but he's also struggled badly with his command — 10 walks in 6.2 innings — which leaves essentially only Kintzler, Steve Cishek and Pedro Strop firmly within Maddon's circle of trust.
For a bullpen with major control issues thus far, Kintzler's control stands out even more.
"I'm in attack mode and making action happen and forcing the issue," he said. "The main thing is just throwing strikes. If I'm in the zone, throwing strikes, more than likely, it's gonna go my way."