MSTI’s 2010 in Review: Relievers, Part 1

Slight change of plan here. I was originally going to have this first threesome of reliever reviews be devoted to Jonathan Broxton, Hong-Chih Kuo, and Ronald Belisario. But each of those are going to be pretty long, so they should probably be split up; besides, who’s going to want to read the piece I’d then have to post in a week that’s just Travis Schlichting, Russ Ortiz, and Jeff Weaver? No thanks. So for relievers, we’re going to completely randomize it, three at a time.

Jonathan Broxton (D)
4.04 ERA, 3.01 FIP, 10.5 K/9, 4.0 BB/9, 0.0 WAR

Oh, look, Jonathan Broxton. Nothing interesting happened with him this year, right? Reliable as usual. Let’s just thank our lucky stars for that and move on.

Ah, crap.

Before we get into Broxton’s meltdown, it’s important to remember how awesome he was in the first half. He’s got the All-Star card there for a reason, and that’s because he was nails. You want to know why the quotes I’m about to show are almost entirely from the second half? Because no one talks about the closer when he’s getting the job done, and Broxton most certainly was for the first three months. Other than occasional complaints about Joe Torre’s bizarre usage of him, bringing him into blowouts rather than the lesser arms, my main mention of him came on June 14, when I pointed out this stat:

Jonathan Broxton, last calendar year: 74 games, 4-2, 37 saves, 6 blown, 74.1 IP, 2.42 ERA, 106/21 K/BB, .212/.269/.282 line against.

After shutting down the Yankees on June 26, Broxton’s 2010 line was asburd. He’d held batters to just a puny .217/.254/.258 line, with an amazing 48/5 K/BB. Say that he wasn’t dominating at that point, and be wrong. And before we get into what happened against the Yankees on June 27th, we’re tossing out the “failed in a big situation” argument immediately, because it’s just not true. Broxton’s previous seven games came against St. Louis (2), the Angels (3), Boston (1), and the Yankees (1). He struck out eight while not allowing a run. Those are the top teams in baseball most years, and he was just fine against them. How’s your argument now?

Then came the disaster against the Yankees on Sunday Night Baseball on June 27th, where he faced nine batters and allowed six to reach and four to score. Though it was fueled in part by James Loney botching what could have been a game-ending double play, it was a meltdown so bad that it didn’t even get him a blown save because the lead was so big. Still, I didn’t absolve Broxton, but my main issue at the time was with Torre’s usage of him:

In the 9th, Broxton was brought on to pitch for the 4th time in 5th days, two of which were for more than one inning, despite the Dodgers having a four run lead. As Eric Stephen will happily tell you, “the last 3 [games were] with win expectancies of 95.5%, 98.8%, and 98.8%” when he entered. The point being, those are the kinds of situations in which you bring on your lesser relievers, at least to start. Even if you don’t trust them – as Torre clearly doesn’t, other than Hong-Chih Kuo – if they run into trouble, then sure, bring on the big man. And no, I’m not suggesting that Broxton should only be brought into save situations (which he hasn’t seen since June 9) but you have to measure his usage a little more carefully, especially in all of these non-vital situations.

So when the lead was pushed to four on Rafael Furcal‘s 8th inning double, that’s when you pick up the phone to the bullpen and say, “you’ve pitched enough lately, Jonathan, especially yesterday. Sit down and we’ll let the other guys pick you up, and only bring you in if there’s a disaster.”

But no, Torre brings in the clearly overworked Broxton, and we’re supposed to act surprised that one of the best teams in baseball fouled off pitch after pitch, dropped in hit after hit, and patiently drew walks.

It capped off a long week for Broxton:

If there’s any takeaway from this, it’s this: Broxton has thrown 99 pitches since June 23rd. By comparison, the Dodger starting rotation since then has these counts: Kershaw 101 (tonight 6/27), Kuroda 110 (6/26), Padilla 111 (6/25), Haeger 102 (6/24), Ely 97 (6/23). Because apparently, Broxton is a starting pitcher now.

The impact didn’t start immediately – Broxton converted his next three save situations – but after getting the save in the All-Star Game, things started to head south. In the first series after the break, the Dodgers went into St. Louis and got swept, with Broxton blowing the final game. That was a team effort – the blown save seemed bigger than it was because the Dodgers had lost the first three games, none of which Broxton was in, and two relievers couldn’t get through the 8th, forcing Broxton into a bad situation – but it was still his fault. That’s fine, but just as long as you realize what exactly the problem was.

All I ask is to be fair about this. Broxton didn’t blow the game last night because of some garbage you’ll hear about not seeing the killer instinct when you look into his eyes, as though any one of us has a real personal relationship with him. That’s ridiculous, and it’s unfair of anyone to even speculate what goes on inside his head, because you just don’t know.

No, Broxton lost last night because he dicked around against rookie Jon Jay, who has all of 75 career at-bats. He tried to nibble rather than challenging him, and issued him a free pass. He lost because he threw 27 pitches in the 9th inning, and all but three were fastballs. I don’t care how hard you throw; unless your fastball has some movement on it, which Broxton’s largely doesn’t, guys are going to be able to get around on it if they know it’s coming. (This, by the way, is exactly the same thing I said when I was analyzing last year’s botched NLCS game against the Phillies in the Maple Street Annual.) He threw, according to MLB.com, 17 fastballs in a row to Brendan Ryan, Felipe Lopez, Jay, and Allen Craig.

That’s not lack of intestinal fortitude; that’s just being stupid, bull-headed or both. Broxton has a decent slider. He just needs to mix it in more, because as hard as it may be to hit 99 MPH heat when you know it’s coming, it’s downright impossible when you have the worry of a knee-buckling breaking pitch in the back of your mind.

As much as Broxton may have deserved that blown save, he didn’t deserve the one that got hung on him two nights later – the infamous Don Mattingly “double visit” game:

When I looked at the box score on my phone and saw that Jonathan Broxton picked up the loss after walking two and allowing three runs in 1/3 of an inning, it got even worse. Had he really blown a second game in a row? Was I going to have to deal with all of this again?

Well, not quite. Because it turns out that one of those walks was intentional, the one hit he allowed was an infield single and not a single one of the runs scored while he was on the mound. Not that he’s blameless – but that the line score is horribly misleading.

After sandwiching a few good outings around blowing a game by allowing a Pat Burrell longball, he had yet another rough outing in Philadelphia. By this time even I was starting to sour, though I felt it was important to remember that he was hardly the only one who’d contributed to that loss:

You’re probably coming here expecting me to defend Jonathan Broxton, as I’ve done so often. But you’re not going to find that tonight. He was crap, loading the bases with no outs (on a hit batter and two walks), and eventually blowing the three-run lead that was handed to him on a game-winning double by Carlos Ruiz. So if you want to tear apart Broxton, you go right ahead, because you’ll get no pushback from me, and I’ll need to be devoting an entire post to his recent failures soon. I don’t want to hear any crap about how “he’s scared of the Phillies,” because that’s just amateur psychiatrist BS. He’s been lousy against everyone lately, and that points towards a larger issue.

All I ask is this: while you burn him in effigy, you don’t ignore the fact that Ronald Belisario faced five men in the 8th and got zero outs, and that Broxton induced a perfect double-play ball that went right through Casey Blake‘s legs. Broxton’s going to get the lion’s share of the blame here, and probably rightfully so. But he’s not alone in this loss, and that’s important to remember.

The next day, Broxton was removed from the closing role in favor of Hong-Chih Kuo, a move I supported. It’s hard not to see that Yankee game as a major turning point in his season; while he was the best reliever in baseball to that point (don’t forget the 48/5 K/BB), from that game on he was horrendous: .915 OPS against, 7.58 ERA, 25/23 K/BB.

The one bright side of that is, any statements about whether the 9th inning had gotten the best of him were simply not grounded in reality; he was awful against everyone in every inning in the second half of the year.

So what caused it? It’s worth noting that he was extremely unlucky, because even just in addition to poor defense by Blake and Loney directly leading to two of the worst blown saves, his BABIP was a career-high .369. That’s why his FIP of 3.01 looks a lot better than his ERA of 4.04, not that ERA means anything for relievers anyway.

Mere random luck certainly doesn’t explain all, or even most, of his issues, though. His velocity was down, though he claimed no injury, but I think the loss of movement on his fastball was the primary culprit – just look at how much the vertical movement on his heater declined this year. So what can you do with him? I looked at trade possibilities and determined that between his $7m salary and his value being at his lowest that it just didn’t make sense. Don Mattingly claims that Broxton heads into next season as his primary closer, and whether that makes sense or not, it’s simply foolishness to ignore the 3+ years of excellence. As I said in my 2011 plan…

Really, I just want to extract the most value from Broxton, whether that’s on-the-field performance or return via trade, and moving him now isn’t the way to do that. Besides, all the people you hear saying he’s “mentally weak” were saying the same thing about Chad Billingsley last winter, and you saw how well that worked out. If Broxton’s late-season disaster proved anything, it’s that the 9th inning wasn’t the source of his problems. Whether it was bad mechanics, overuse by Joe Torre (don’t forget that he was asked to throw 99 pitches in five days, and that’s where his troubles began), or an unknown injury (Josh Suchon on DodgerTalk claimed he saw Broxton’s ankle heavily taped after a late-season game), there’s a lot of viable reasons for his downfall. The hope is that a winter of rest can help him come back and regain that value, and giving him that chance – even if he’s not the closer initially – is the right move.

Even if Broxton does return to his former status, god help us all the first time he has a rough outing, because he’s either perfect or he’s garbage. That’s a fair standard, right?

Scott Elbert (inc.)
13.50 ERA, 16.58 FIP, 0.0 K/9, 40.5 BB/9, 0.0 WAR

If you thought Jack Taschner‘s 2010 stint with the Dodgers was brief, then you probably missed Scott Elbert‘s time with the club entirely. Elbert faced six batters on May 29 in Colorado, walked more (three) than he retired (two), was almost immediately optioned back to ABQ and was never heard from again.

No, really. Not only did he not return to the big leagues, but he walked away from the organization entirely due to an unknown personal issue, eventually returning to pitch at the club’s spring training home in Arizona, but not getting back into any real games. It was almost as well; in the nine games he did pitch for ABQ this year, Elbert flashed the strikeout stuff we’ve seen from him previously (9.3/9), but was undone by an absurdly high walk rate (7.1/9).

While that may sound bleak in terms of his career, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Since he’s pitching in the Arizona Fall League, he’s got the dual benefit of pitching for new manager Don Mattingly in addition to playing in a league largely composed of players several years younger. Though Elbert’s been almost exclusively a starter, he told Tony Jackson that he’d like to be a reliever, and that’s likely his quickest path to the bigs:

Although he was a starter at Albuquerque this year before his departure, all indications are that the Dodgers now view him as a reliever, and given the bullpen issues the team had this year, that could bode well for Elbert in his effort to secure a spot on the Opening Day roster.

With George Sherrill almost certainly not returning, there’s a big hole in the bullpen for a second lefty behind Hong-Chih Kuo. Who’s to say it can’t be Elbert?

Jon Link (inc.)
4.15 ERA, 3.54 FIP, 4.2 K/9, 4.2 BB/9, -0.1 WAR

How many times did Link get shipped back and forth between LA and ABQ this year? Despite pitching in just nine MLB games, he appeared for the Dodgers in every month but May and August.

Still, he pitched just 8.2 innings for the big club, so there’s not a whole lot to say about his performance, especially when you look at how low-leverage they were. No, really; other than his last outing of the year (three runs), Link never once pitched in a game that had a margin of four runs or fewer.

That said, as long as he didn’t get arrested, it was going to be a great season; the simple fact alone that the Dodgers got someone who looks like he might actually have a big league future for Juan Pierre (in addition to John Ely) is a big win. Link’s big concern headed into the year was his control, yet he managed to knock down his BB/9 from 4.3 in back-to-back years down to 3.1 this year. He’ll be 27 in the spring, and he’ll be squarely in the mix for a bullpen role, fighting for a spot with guys like Travis Schlichting. He’ll surely be seen at some point next year even if he’s not on the Opening Day roster.

******

Next! Hong-Chih Kuo cannot be destroyed! Holy crap, remember Jack Taschner?! And Justin Miller keeps the seat warm for the other Justin Miller! It’s relievers, part 2!