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Jonathan Broxton, Closer

The Dodgers made a run at all-time saves leader Trevor Hoffman last week, but he since has signed with the Milwaukee Brewers.  Coupled with former closer Takashi Saito joining the Red Sox, the Dodgers are left with who would have been their best option anyway at closer.  From Bill Shaikin in the LA Times:

"We thought we'd take a shot at Hoffman if we could, because he would give us a nice combination with Broxton," Dodgers General Manager Ned Colletti said Thursday. "We're fine with the way it is, with Jonathan. We're still trying to add to the bullpen."

I'm glad the Dodgers have decided to hand the closer reigns to Jonathan Broxton, who is quite simply one of the best relievers in baseball.  Broxton is 11th in MLB in opponents OPS+ allowed in the last 3 years.  He is 4th in strikeouts per 9 innings over the same period.  Yet I still get the sense than many aren't comfortable with Broxton entering games with a lead in the 9th inning.

The first seeds of doubt in Broxton were planted in a game in San Diego in June 2007.  Ironically, Broxton didn't even enter the game in a save situation (the Dodgers' lead was  5-1 entering the 9th).  Broxton allowed 5 runs (4 earned) to lose the game, but I contend he experienced some bad luck.  Here were the first few batters Broxton faced during that fateful inning:

1) Geoff Blum: single to 2B (this was a play the statue of Jeff Kent could not make, a play that most 2B would have made.  Should have been an error)

2) Termell Sledge: reached on E3, Blum to 2B

3) Marcus Giles: single to LF, Blum to 3B, Sledge to 2B (legit hit)

4) Paul McAnulty: single to 1B, Blum scores, Sledge to 3B, Giles to 2B (this was an misplay by Nomar that should have been ruled an error, as he inexplicably held the ball rather than throw to a covering Broxton for the easy out)

Broxton did eventually give up the runs, so he certainly deserves some blame, but I find it hard to find much fault when he should have had three outs from the first four hitters.   I don't want to do a batter-by-batter analysis of Broxton's relief efforts, but I think this game was important as it started the doubt in Broxton's closing abilities. 

He has certainly had his shaky moments, but that is the nature of the beast.  People remember closer mistakes, because they very often directly result in a (sometimes crushing) loss.  Dodger fans were spoiled by Eric Gagne, who for three years redefined what closing excellence was.  If we are going to hold Broxton to the Gagne standard, we are guaranteed to be disappointed.  It's setting too lofty and unattainable a goal.

What we need to do is appreciate Broxton for what he is, an upper echelon reliever.  Per The Hardball Times, Expected Fielding Independent Pitching (x-FIP) is a good predictor of future ERA:

This is an experimental stat that adjusts FIP and "normalizes" the home run component. Research has shown that home runs allowed are pretty much a function of flyballs allowed and home park, so xFIP is based on the average number of home runs allowed per outfield fly. Theoretically, this should be a better predicter of a pitcher's future ERA

Here are the 2008 leaders in x-FIP among relievers with at least 50 IP:

Rank Pitcher Team IP x-FIP
1) Mariano Rivera Yankees 70.2 2.44
2) Jonathan Papelbon Red Sox 69.1 2.50
3) Rafael Perez Indians 76.1 2.72
4) Matt Thornton White Sox 67.1 2.74
5) Hong Chih-Kuo Dodgers 80.0 2.89
6) Joe Nathan Twins 67.2 2.89
7) Jonathan Broxton Dodgers 69.0 2.91
8) Chad Qualls Diamondbacks 73.2 3.02
9) Grant Balfour Rays 58.1 3.04
10) Brad Lidge Phillies 69.1 3.06

Note: Takashi Saito had an x-FIP of 3.00 in 47 innings.  Not a bad pair of relievers the Dodgers have going forward in Broxton and Kuo. 

Here are the 2007 leaders in x-FIP:

Rank Pitcher Team IP x-FIP
1) Jonathan Broxton
Dodgers 82.0 2.75
2) Takashi Saito
Dodgers 64.1 2.82
3) Heath Bell
Padres 93.2 2.84
4) Francisco Cordero
Brewers 63.1 2.86
5) Huston Street
A's 50.0 2.86
6) J.J. Putz
Mariners 71.2 2.95
7) Cla Meredith
Padres 79.2 3.01
8) Rafael Perez
Indians 60.2 3.03
9) Jonathan Papelbon
Red Sox
58.1 3.03
10) Mariano Rivera
Yankees 71.1 3.06

The only relievers to be in the top 10 in x-FIP the last two years are Broxton, Rafael Perez, Jonathan Papelbon, and Mariano Rivera.  Broxton is the only one to be under 3.00 each year.

Broxton is already a great reliever.  It's just up to Dodger fans to realize this fact.  When he's given the closer's job, I have no doubt he'll succeed.