As the saying goes, a team can never have enough pitching. Specific to the Kansas City Royals, it’s relief pitching. The team came to an agreement with former Los Angeles Dodgers closer Jonathan Broxton on a 1-year, $4 million deal earlier this week. No team in baseball has the collection of power arms in the bullpen that the Royals have assembled and if Broxton can return to the form that made him arguably the best reliever in the game, the team could be looking at its best bullpen in 20 years.
In 2009, Broxton established himself as quite possibly the best reliever in the National League. He posted a 2.61 ERA that actually belied how effective he was, as his Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) mark was 1.97, the best in the National League among relievers with at least 50 innings pitched. His 2.8 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) also ranked 1st among relievers. From 2006 to 2009, working both as a middle reliever and closer, Broxton compiled 398 strikeouts in 303 1/3 innings pitched, culminating in 114 strikeouts in 76 innings in 2009.
His performance has rapidly deteriorated since that point, however. Everything about Broxton’s performance has been headed in the wrong direction – his strikeout rate has dropped from 30.1 percent to 23.2 to 18.2 from 2009 to 2011, while his walk rate has jumped from 14.0 percent to 18.2 over the same span. The rate at which he was surrendering line drives also spiked, going from 16.1 percent in 2009 to more than double that in 2011 – 32.6. In fact, among pitchers with at least 10 innings pitched, that line drive rate was the 3rd-worst in baseball.
Jonathan Broxton, Last 3 Seasons
Clearly, the Royals are buying low on Broxton in hopes he’ll return to his dominant form of 2009. Part of what made Broxton so effective was his average fastball velocity, which sat at 97.6 in 2009 before dropping to 95.3 and 94.0 the last two seasons. If he can regain his previous form, he’ll fit right in with a Royals bullpen that featured some of the hardest-throwing arms in the big leagues. Among AL relievers who threw at least 200 pitches in 2011, the Royals had 4 of the top 18 according to average fastball velocity – Jeremy Jeffress (3rd, 96.8), Blake Wood (8th, 95.5), Aaron Crow (17th, 94.9) and Greg Holland (18th, 94.9).
That group does not even include established closer Joakim Soria or diminutive lefty Tim Collins, who ranked 5th among AL left-handed relivers in average fastball velocity in 2011 at 92.3. A vast majority of these arms have been acquired under the regime of GM Dayton Moore – Holland in the 2007 draft, Crow in the 2009 draft, Jeffress in the Zack Greinke trade with the Milwaukee Brewers and Collins in a 2010 trade with the Atlanta Braves.
It is this collection of high-upside, hard-throwing bullpen arms that helped the Royals to post its best relief season – by ERA – in the Wild Card era. The team’s 3.74 bullpen ERA was its best since 1992 and only the 5th time since 1990 that it’s been under 4.00. While Broxton may never return to his previously dominant form, it’s yet another example of the Royals front office adding a low-cost, high-upside, high-velocity reliever a move that, if it works, could lead the Royals to their first consecutive seasons with bullpen ERAs below 4.00 since they did so three consecutive seasons from 1988-90 and could lead Broxton to a significantly larger payday after 2012.