After a shaky debut in 2005, Jonathan Broxton has established himself as one of the most dominant relief pitchers in baseball, and this year is no different. Broxton has struck out almost 11 batters per nine with a better than a three to one strikeout to walk rate and only allows a home run once every 25 innings. These peripherals have made Broxton the seventh best pitcher in the NL who has thrown more than 25 innings this year. (In what can only be described as a good thing, Dodgers hold the one, two and four spots on that list). So when Takashi Saito went down a few weeks ago, it would seem like a natural move to make Broxton the closer. Sure, Hong-Chih Kuo may be having the better year but Broxton has shown more ability to consistently get it done, and there's no danger of his forearm becoming detached and poking Russ in the eye. Broxton's FIP numbers out class every closer in the NL except for Kerry Wood and Brian Fuentes, so there's absolutely no reason we should panic with him in this role.
Since we can never be happy with anything, this hasn't been the case this year. Despite successfully doing his job until last Saturday, Broxton was labeled as not having the closer mentality after he lost a game where he gave up one solid hit. Since I believe that players are unfeeling automatons, I was pretty skeptical of this claim, and went to see if there's anything that could back this up.
My first try at this led to some simple numbers. (These don't include last night)
Broxton career in save situations: 3.16 ERA
In non save situations: 3.01
No real difference at all, and with a smug sense of superiority, I thought my job was done. After kicking back for a couple minutes, I realized that pitching at any time with a three run lead is considered a save situation, not just the ninth. Now that facts made my life harder, I was going to have to change how I did this. I decided to look at "closer situations", games where Broxton pitched in the ninth in either a tie game or with up to a three run lead, and see how he performed.
Broxton in closer situations: 4.18 ERA, 22 appearances, 3 blown saves.
On the surface, Broxton does become a worse pitcher in save situations, but this was almost entirely from one bad outing. On June 7th, 2007, Broxton was brought in to lock down a game and ended up surrendering five runs (four earned) in a third of an inning. Other than that game, and Saturday's breakdown (which can largely be blamed on the defense), Broxton has been nails in the closer role. In these 22 appearances, Broxton allowed runs in only six of them, and has actually seen his strike out rate increase over his career norms. Holding down the lead 86% of the time would make him a more effective closer than Billy Wagner, Jose Valverde, and Huston Street this season, and puts him right in line with Jonathan Papelbon's save percentage. Would we be upset if any of those guys were closing for us this year? One truly terrible outing shouldn't make us think that Broxton can't handle the ninth.
The other argument is that Broxton can't handle the mental pressure of pitching in the ninth. Granted, if there is a special pressure to actually finishing the game, I've got no argument here, but to say that Broxton doesn't face high pressure situations as the setup man is wrong. Broxton has faced 205 batters this year, and 99 of them have been in high leverage situations. While seeing 48 percent of his opponents in high leverage situations is slightly less than a closer would see (Saito faced 87 out of 170 of his batters in high leverage situations) it's pretty close.. Coming into the game with runners in scoring position in the eighth is just as pressure packed as entering with the bases empty in the ninth.
You could also notice that Broxton has been far worse in high leverage situations this year than he has been otherwise (.708 OPS against in high leverage versus .441 in medium and .598 in low) but this is almost entirely because he has a .375 BABIP in the high leverage situations and he's in the low 200s otherwise. It may be true that Broxton has performed worse when the pressure's been on this year, but that's almost entirely from bad luck.
The idea that Broxton can't close comes entirely from one very unfortunate meltdown, and there's no evidence that suggests he shouldn't be able to handle the ninth. Broxton's numbers say that he's one of the best relievers in the game and we should treat him like he is.