Not that long ago, Jonathan Broxton seemed destined to hit the free agent market and snag what could now be referred to as "Papelbon Money." Big, bad Broxton trailed just Papelbon, Mariano Rivera and Joe Nathan in Wins Above Replacement among relievers from 2006 to 2009, delivering upper-90s cheddar and sinister upper-80s sliders from his near-300 pound frame. But after a down 2010 and a 2011 season shattered by bone spurs in his elbow requiring arthroscopic surgery in September, the 27-year-old Broxton will look to rebuild his value in Kansas City. The Royals signed Broxton to a one-year, $4 million deal (plus $1 million in possible incentives) to set up for Joakim Soria.
Broxton's rise -- and decline -- can be traced to his fastball. The lineman-sized righty averaged 96.7 mph with his fastball in 2008 (the first year of Pitch F/X data), ranking third among relief pitchers behind Joel Zumaya and Brandon League. The next year, he increased that velocity to 97.5 mph (placing behind just Zumaya). Hitters didn't stand a chance. Broxton used that fastball three-quarters of the time over that two year stretch, getting whiffs 25 percent of the time that opponents swung at the pitch (the average for relievers is around 17-18 percent). Batters hit a paltry .211 against Broxton's heat, and slugged .299. They couldn't clout the pitch even when he put it right down the middle:
Beginning in 2010, however, Broxton began to lose zip and effectiveness. He averaged 95.3 mph with his fastball, with his miss percentage falling to 23-24 percent. Opponents hit .270 against the pitch and slugged .356. And in 2011, Broxton's heat averaged 94 mph before he was shelved with an elbow injury in May after just 12.2 innings pitched. His miss percentage dipped again to 20 percent in a small sample, with opponents batting .286 and slugging .429. While he pounded the strike zone in years past, Broxton often missed to the arm side while pitching wounded:
It's hard to fault the Royals for taking a relatively low-cost gamble on Broxton. While his own agent, B.B. Abbott, says that Broxton's days of flirting with triple-digits are likely over, he could still be quite useful if he's 75-80% of the former Big, Bad Jon. If he proves to be healthy and deals, both parties win: Broxton sets himself up for a big payday next winter, and the Royals have a nice trade chip if their prospect cornucopia doesn't translate into AL Central contention in 2012.
Of course, history is littered with powers relievers who burned bright and faded just as fast (Zumaya waves hello, with his left arm), and just thinking about heaving an object at 95-100 mph thousands of times is enough to make my elbow hurt. Broxton may or may not be broken, but K.C. didn't bust its budget to find out.