Jonathan Broxton and the Reds Bullpen

[Author’s note added November 17: Jack Moore pointed out today that Broxton seems to have added a cutter late in the season, which may account for his improved performance with the Reds. I wish I had noticed this and taken it into account. It does change things at least a bit in favor of the deal. As Jack notes, still just 82 pitches at the end of the year, so random variation and the element of surprise may have played a part. Thus, I still think the overall thrust of this piece is something I still stand by.]

As Jeff Sullivan discussed on Monday, the Cincinnati Reds’ then-potential contract with Jonathan Broxton had implications for Aroldis Chapman‘s possible move to the rotation. Today, that potential was actualized, as the Reds reportedly re-signed Broxton for three years and $21 million dollars.

The contract is also said to include a limited no-trade clause, a $9 club option for 2016, a limited no-trade clause, and another clause that increases the guaranteed portion of the deal to $22 million and makes the option mutual. Whatever implications this might have for Chapman, it is worth considering Broxton’s own merits in relation to his salary and the Reds’ needs.

It would be simple enough to just leave it with Jeff’s aside on Broxton in Monday’s post: basically, it seems like a lot of money for a non-elite reliever, even if it does not devastate the Reds’ payroll. That may be where we end up, but it requires a closer look.

From about 2006 to 2009, Broxton was one of the more dominating relievers in baseball, putting up double-digit strikeout rates per nine innings with a fastball in the upper 90s and a slider in the upper 80s. It may be a bit difficult to remember now, but Broxton did not become the Dodgers’ primary closer until the middle of the 2008 season. In 2009, he spent his first full season in that role, and got the all-important True Closer Experience. That 2009 season also was his peak, as he struck out almost 40 percent of the batters he faced and pitched a career-high 76 innings.

Trouble began to surface in 2010. He was still decent, but his relatively poor ERA (for a reliever) was not just a function of an anomalous .366 BABIP. He also put up a then-career-worst strikeout rate, and walked batters as frequently as his worst previous season (excluding his brief 2005 audition). His fastball velocity dropped pretty significantly and he was having a harder time getting batters to miss when they swung. Whether or not these problems were indications of injury problems to come, the injury did come, and Broxton missed almost the entire 2011 season.

In 2012, Broxton signed with the Royals and became their Experienced Closer once Joakim Soria went down for the year. Whether the Royals really thought that his experience made him a better closing candidate than clearly superior pitchers like Greg Holland or whether they were just trying to keep Broxton in the eyes of potential suitors, the Reds traded for him. With the Royals, the nice ERA and saves masked just what a high-wire act Johnny Drama’s appearances could be (Entourage reference, kill me now). He managed to strand enough runners for Kansas City that he was able to navigate poor walk and strikeout rates. He seemed to be resuscitated after the trade to the Reds. Even if his strikeout rate was not back to pre-2010 levels, it was still very good at 23 percent, and his walk rate was a career best.

Of course, isolating 22 good innings with the Reds as if it should be taken as a discrete data point apart from his performance with the Royals is pretty much a paradigmatic example of cherry picking. The season should be taken as a whole, and it paints a picture of a decent, but hardly great reliever: improved control, mediocre strikeout rate, and probably some luck on fly balls.

That is not to say that 2012 is necessarily exactly who Broxton is now: despite the injuries, his past performances also count for something. However, his last great performances were a few years and a big injury ago. Moreover, we can point to specific things that have changed with Broxton. The big one, as previously mentioned, is that his fastball velocity is down. Moreover, it is not just his fastball that is at issue. In 2010, his slider started getting fewer swing-and-misses, and in 2012, that rate was even lower.

Broxton will turn 29 next June, which is not ancient, but is still on pretty clearly on the decline curve for pitchers. He has had elbow problems in the recent past. His stuff simply is not what it once was. Straight up, he probably (a bit generously) projects as about a one-win middle reliever, which makes the contract appear to be a pretty big overpay (almost Jeremy Guthrie money!) even before considering the limited no-trade clause and the changed structure of the deal if he is traded.

However, there are some potential arguments on the Reds’ behalf. They are a contending team built to win now, so marginal wins are worth more for them. In addition, with the new money coming into baseball (in addition to the Reds’ nice TV deal for their market), salaries are going to be on the rise. If Chapman moves to the rotation, Broxton will be the closer, and those innings are worth more (leverage) than typical middle relief innings. So, for example, if you assume that the cost of a marginal win is going to be something like $6 million for this off-season and will increase about 10 percent a year, and that Broxton’s value increases by something like 50 percent because of leverage, then assuming a fairly typical decline curve, this deal might seem pretty fair.

The reality that the Reds are in contention, and thus that marginal wins are probably worth more for them than for the average team is something that is cannot really be disputed. However, it seems to that all of the above arguments need to work for the deal to really make sense. The rising salaries argument might be valid, but it is too early to say one way or the other — it really depends on projections both of player quality and available team money. My own (very rough) look does not put the cost of a win is quite a $6 million so far this off-season, although it would not rule it out.

However, while the arguments from contention and the increased cost of wins might work, the argument from Broxton’s leverage (assuming Chapman moves to the rotation) really does not. This is not to say that leverage does not matter, nor that it could, in the abstract, increase Broxton’s value enough to make him individually worth the deal. The problem with this argument is that even without Chapman in the bullpen, Broxton probably is not the best candidate for the highest-leverage situations. Sean Marshall seems to clearly be a better pitcher than Broxton. Marshall has easily outpitched Broxton the last three seasons. I do not have the space to get too deeply into Marshall. The short version: Marshall’s 2012 performance versus right-handed hitters seems to be fairly random variation given his past platoon performance and repertoire. And even with the big split, Marshall was still pretty awesome in 2012. One could make arguments for other Reds relievers being better than or at least as good as Broxton. Even one or two of them being close to Broxton reduces his deserved priority for high-leverage innings. However, I think Marshall’s excellence is enough by itself to outweigh whatever advantages Broxton might offer over the other options, with or without his Closer Experience.

Perhaps just about any contract can seem reasonable looked at long enough. Teams are not just throwing at a dartboard when they make these decisions. When I looked more closely at this and tried to see it from a different perspective, after a little bit of searching, it no longer seemed to necessarily be another generic weird deal for a middle reliever. However, in the end, I think that this contract makes sense only with rosy projections for both the cost of a marginal win as well as Broxton’s health and performance. It probably requires the Reds to use Broxton in higher-leverage innings than his skills relative to other Reds relievers like Marshall warrants. It should be mentioned that all of this assumes that Chapman will not return to the bullpen. This does not mean that the contract is crippling for Cincinnati, but it does make it puzzling.

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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.

11 Responses to “Jonathan Broxton and the Reds Bullpen”

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  1. AJ says:

    Marshall can’t be trusted as closer. Dusty Baker told me so.

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  2. TK says:

    Hard to know for sure, but one possible explanation of better performance in Cincinnati than KC is improved health or arm strength or however you want to couch it. Missing most of 2011 due to injury implies some transition period in 2012, no?

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  3. Marcat says:

    If guys like League, Broxton, and Affeldt are getting 3 years and $18-21 million, what on earth is Rafael Soriano asking for? I thought Papelbon type contracts would be on the decline, but if non-elite (or even great) relievers are getting these three year deals…oi!

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  4. Bob says:

    I don’t like this for Cincy. Whatever the $ value for marginal wins, and wherever the Reds fall on the success cycle, any FA contract should be viewed through the lens of the Four Questions:

    Is there someone almost as good, for a lot less money?

    Is there anyone just as good, for a bit less money?

    Is there somebody a little better, for the same dollars?

    Is there anybody who’d cost more, but be quite a bit better?

    Given all the options (internal and external) for Cincy, I think one can safely answer in the affirmative to at least two or three of the above questions — if not all four.

    The large investments in Votto and Phillips notwithstanding, this is still a mid-market club with modest payroll flexibility, as far as I can tell. So $7M per year, for three years of a reliever who may or may not be healthy plus effective, and ain’t exactly a paragon of conditioning, just feels borderline reckless.

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    • Doug Gray says:

      I would have liked to have given a shot to both Marshall and JJ Hoover at closer before signing a free agent as the closer. With that said, if Broxton can be close to the guy he was with the Reds last year (not so much the guy he was with the Royals), this works for the Reds because when it comes to Dusty Baker, he absolutely needs guys for exact roles. He doesn’t handle things well when there aren’t defined roles for everyone, so this whole “not having a proven closer” thing doesn’t work for him. He would yank anyone after a sketchy performance or two (see Sean Marshall, 2012) and that just isn’t good business. Having someone who is proven (I use that word for him, not for you or I) allows him to have leeway in not yanking someone if they show struggles over a week or two period of time and disrupt the entire bullpen. I don’t like it in that sense, but we are stuck with Dusty as the manager, so with that in mind, the move makes sense for the team.

      As for not knowing if he is healthy, the guy pitched in 63 games last if we include the playoffs. He wasn’t shut down at the end of the year for anything, so there really doesn’t seem to be any more “injury risk” associated with him than any other reliever you are going to bring in.

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      • mdccclxix says:

        I would say its not just Dusty Baker that needs a proven closer, but a team that is trying to win a WS while shuffling their rotation to fit a potential superstar. Broxton on board calms things down for the bullpen instead of relying on guys that haven’t done it. Right or wrong, it’s what the organization needs. Not many serious contenders like going into the season without a big name closer.

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  5. Bob says:

    How is BJ Upton worth 15 mil a year, there is the story you should be writng….The guy can’t even hit .250…..And has slightly better then average power……His contract compared to Broxton…..I await your story on the Braves ineptness.

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  6. bkgeneral says:

    All I know is dude is fat. While that may have worked for David Wells, I am not sure about Broxton.

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  7. First Bob says:

    Just want to disassociate myself from those oddly off-topic Upton remarks of Other Bob.

    Also, Doug does make some very valid points — but it nevertheless feels (not unlike the League contract) like an overreach, in AAV or years or both. Philosophically, I can see the Reds wanting Broxton… but on a practical level, would he not have re-inked for, say 2/12 or 3/16?

    It just feels like there’s a real double-risk in play here. If Broxton is good-not-great, it’s an overpay of $3-4M per year. And if Chapman is an OK-but-inefficient 5 1/2 innings-per-start guy, then you’ve weakened your bullpen without really improving the rotation, while bumping payroll up against its limit.

    Or to put it yet another way, if Broxton’s contract has any *meaningful* effect on who the club can and can’t pursue at other needful spots (LF, bench, maybe even CF) then I have to call it a mistake.

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