Many writers scoffed when Ned Yost and the Kansas City Royals handed the closer’s role to right-hander Jonathan Broxton this spring. After all, Broxton is returning from an elbow injury that rendered him ineffective (5.63 FIP) and held him to only 14 appearances last season, while fellow right-hander Greg Holland burst onto the scene in 2011 with an 11.10 K/9 strikeout rate and a minuscule 2.21 FIP.
It only seemed natural that Greg Holland be given the job in the spring. He is arguably the best reliever in the Royals’ bullpen and was utterly dominating throughout all of 2011. The decision to hand the reins to Broxton was largely branded as the epitome of pandering to the baseball cliche of the “closer mentality.” Broxton possessed it because he had accumulated 84 saves over the course of his seven-year career. Holland, on the other hand, only has four career saves, so question marks remain as to whether he has closer mentality.
On Sunday afternoon against the Los Angeles Angels, however, Broxton entered the game in a save situation and struck out three consecutive hitters: Torii Hunter, Vernon Wells, and Kendrys Morales. While not three of the most dangerous hitters in the league, Broxton alleviated some of the fears concerning his effectiveness that the majority of Royals fans harbored heading into the season.
But, does this mean the Jonathan Broxton has returned?
The early results indicate that Broxton has turned a corner and should produce results closer to the strong 2006-2009 seasons, rather than the lackluster 2010-2011 seasons. The swinging strikes had been on the decline in each of the past two years, but he generated six swings-and-misses on Sunday on only fourteen pitches. While that 42.86% SwStr% is certainly not sustainable throughout the course of the season, it serves as a positive harbinger for subsequent performances as the season wears on.
Perhaps the most encouraging aspect to Broxton’s inning of work on Sunday was the rebound in velocity. His once overpowering fastball had decreased in velocity over the past couple of seasons, which ultimately played a significant role in his lessened effectiveness, but pitch f/x registered his average fastball velocity back at 2008-2009 levels.
Not only did Broxton throw his fastball significantly harder on Sunday than he has in previous years, but his slider was also ridiculous. The average velocity of his slider against the Los Angeles Angels was 90.04 MPH. The career high average for Broxton’s slider was in 2009, when he averaged 88.6 MPH over the course of the season. More importantly, he threw his slider five times and threw five strikes — three of them of the swinging variety.
One outing is far too little to officially declare Jonathan Broxton healthy and “back” to his elite level of performance. It could simply be a blip on the radar screen. However, his stellar spring performance (1.13 ERA and 12.4 K/9), his increased velocity on both his fastball and slider, and his clean bill of health all suggest that the right-hander is poised for a huge comeback season on the mound for the Royals.
After the season ends, the one-year, $4M contract that Broxton signed could be one of the biggest bargains of the offseason.