When the Royals signed Jonathan Broxton this offseason, it was a point of both debate and indifference, as hard as that is to believe. They’re paying Broxton $4 million dollars for the season, and it initially seemed that they’d be handing over that money for Broxton to fill in as a setup man for Joakim Soria. Of course, we all know what happened next, and Broxton ended up in the closer role when Soria went out for Tommy John surgery. I don’t remember the general reaction to Broxton filling that role at the time, but I know I was concerned.
That concern was based on two things. The first is that Broxton had an injury-shortened 2011, and we didn’t know if he’d be ready to pitch well or, if he was ready, if he would pitch well anyway. He had a 5.68 ERA (4.67 xFIP) in 2011 and a 4.04 ERA (3.20 xFIP) in 2010, so I wasn’t sure how things would go. His ground ball percentage dropped in both those seasons , as did his strikeout rate, while his walk rate jumped up. It sure didn’t look positive from the outside.
Well, my questions weren’t answered off the bat in 2012. Broxton gave up a run in his first outing against the Angels, but still held on to the lead. In the game the following day, he struck out all three batters he faced. Things looked good and I started to feel a little better.
Then Broxton faced the Athletics on April 11.
In this game, the Royals went into extra innings with the A’s at three runs apiece. Not much happened for a couple innings, but the Royals managed to strike for a run in the top of the 12th inning when Eric Hosmer singled and Billy Butler doubled him in. So, Broxton came in to finish off the game, even though he’d been warming up in the bullpen for a few innings. Broxton struck out the first batter, the next reached on an error by Alcides Escobar, and Broxton came back by walking the next two batters to load the bases. After a groundout that scored the tying run (blowing the save), Broxton hit the next batter to reload the bases and ended the game by hitting Yoenis Cespedes to bring in the winning run. Talk about a painful ending.
I thought for sure we’d just witnessed a Kyle Farnsworth-like expression of Broxton’s contributions for the season. Suffice it to say I was a bit concerned. Since that game, however, Broxton has a 0.82 ERA, only having allowed one earned run. He’s still not striking out many, as he’s seen his strikeout rate drop to the lowest in his career. But for the season, Broxton’s walk rate is his lowest since 2007. He’s stranded baserunners at his highest rate since 2006. And his groundball percentage is on par with his stellar 2009 campaign. All of this has happened with a roughly average and reasonable BABIP of .275 on the season, or 2.81 since that April 11 game.
Some of this, however, seems to be with an assist from the Royals defense. Broxton has a xFIP of 3.98 to this point in the season. He relies on a fastball, slider, and changeup, with all three maintaining almost the same rates this year as previous seasons, though he does seem to use his slider a bit more lately than he did in previous seasons. And all of his pitches have roughly the same velocity that they have had, though PITCHF/X seems to suggest his changeup is flying at about 91 mph, which seems odd. Anyway, things seem to be on pace for his career.
So, why the success so far? Well, part of it is the fielding, as Broxton’s xFIP demonstrates. Another thing to note is that the contact percentage on Broxton’s pitches is up to about 90%, which is well above his career average and is, you guessed it, not a good thing. We hear about the pitching to contact mentality that some teams, pitchers, and pitching coaches claim to like, but at some point that contact will lead to hits and runs. Broxton’s just been able to drive the ball down or otherwise induce enough groundballs to keep runners off the basepaths. As long as that continues, he should be in a good place for the team in the future.
With all of that in mind, this isn’t really the rejuvenation of Jonathan Broxton. It’s his reformation. This isn’t classic Broxton, who was a power pitcher that aimed to strikeout guys rather than induce grounders. He still has the same arsenal, but perhaps isn’t spotting the ball like he used to. If he can continue to keep a groundball-to-flyball ratio of about two or its current 2.50, then the Royals should be able to get good results out of Broxton for the season. If that starts to head south, well, it could get interesting. I’ll just say that I’ve been pleasantly surprised by my slow increase in trust in Broxton’s ability to pitch well. Let’s hope it keeps up this way.
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