Originally written on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 11/15/14
As Jeff Sullivan discussed on Monday, the Cincinnati Reds’ then-potential contract with Jonathan Broxton had implications for Aroldis Chapman‘s possible move to the rotation. Today, that potential was actualized, as the Reds reportedly re-signed Broxton for three years and $21 million dollars. The contract is also said to include a limited no-trade clause, a $9 club option for 2016, a limited no-trade clause, and another clause that increases the guaranteed portion of the deal to $22 million and makes the option mutual. Whatever implications this might have for Chapman, it is worth considering Broxton’s own merits in relation to his salary and the Reds’ needs. It would be simple enough to just leave it with Jeff’s aside on Broxton in Monday’s post: basically, it seems like a lot of money for a non-elite reliever, even if it does not devastate the Reds’ payroll. That may be where we end up, but it requires a closer look. From about 2006 to 2009, Broxton was one of the more dominating relievers in baseball, putting up double-digit strikeout rates per nine innings with a fastball in the upper 90s and a slider in the upper 80s. It may be a bit difficult to remember now, but Broxton did not become the Dodgers’ primary closer until the middle of the 2008 season. In 2009, he spent his first full season in that role, and got the all-important True Closer Experience. That 2009 season also was his peak, as he struck out almost 40 percent of the batters he faced and pitched a career-high 76 innings. Trouble began to surface in 2010. He was still decent, but his relatively poor ERA (for a reliever) was not just a function of an anomalous .366 BABIP. He also put up a then-career-worst strikeout rate, and walked batters as frequently as his worst previous season (excluding his brief 2005 audition). His fastball velocity dropped pretty significantly and he was having a harder time getting batters to miss when they swung. Whether or not these problems were indications of injury problems to come, the injury did come, and Broxton missed almost the entire 2011 season. In 2012, Broxton signed with the Royals and became their Experienced Closer once Joakim Soria went down for the year. Whether the Royals really thought that his experience made him a better closing candidate than clearly superior pitchers like Greg Holland or whether they were just trying to keep Broxton in the eyes of potential suitors, the Reds traded for him. With the Royals, the nice ERA and saves masked just what a high-wire act Johnny Drama’s appearances could be (Entourage reference, kill me now). He managed to strand enough runners for Kansas City that he was able to navigate poor walk and strikeout rates. He seemed to be resuscitated after the trade to the Reds. Even if his strikeout rate was not back to pre-2010 levels, it was still very good at 23 percent, and his walk rate was a career best. Of course, isolating 22 good innings with the Reds as if it should be taken as a discrete data point apart from his performance with the Royals is pretty much a paradigmatic example of cherry picking. The season should be taken as a whole, and it paints a picture of a decent, but hardly great reliever: improved control, mediocre strikeout rate, and probably some luck on fly balls. That is not to say that 2012 is necessarily exactly who Broxton is now: despite the injuries, his past performances also count for something. However, his last great performances were a few years and a big injury ago. Moreover, we can point to specific things that have changed with Broxton. The big one, as previously mentioned, is that his fastball velocity is down. Moreover, it is not just his fastball that is at issue. In 2010, his slider started getting fewer swing-and-misses, and in 2012, that rate was even lower. Broxton will turn 29 next June, which is not ancient, but is still on pretty clearly on the decline curve for pitchers. He has had elbow problems in the recent past. His stuff simply is not what it once was. Straight up, he probably (a bit generously) projects as about a one-win middle reliever, which makes the contract appear to be a pretty big overpay (almost Jeremy Guthrie money!) even before considering the limited no-trade clause and the changed structure of the deal if he is traded. However, there are some potential arguments on the Reds’ behalf. They are a contending team built to win now, so marginal wins are worth more for them. In addition, with the new money coming into baseball (in addition to the Reds’ nice TV deal for their market), salaries are going to be on the rise. If Chapman moves to the rotation, Broxton will be the closer, and those innings are worth more (leverage) than typical middle relief innings. So, for example, if you assume that the cost of a marginal win is going to be something like $6 million for this off-season and will increase about 10 percent a year, and that Broxton’s value increases by something like 50 percent because of leverage, then assuming a fairly typical decline curve, this deal might seem pretty fair. The reality that the Reds are in contention, and thus that marginal wins are probably worth more for them than for the average team is something that is cannot really be disputed. However, it seems to that all of the above arguments need to work for the deal to really make sense. The rising salaries argument might be valid, but it is too early to say one way or the other — it really depends on projections both of player quality and available team money. My own (very rough) look does not put the cost of a win is quite a $6 million so far this off-season, although it would not rule it out. However, while the arguments from contention and the increased cost of wins might work, the argument from Broxton’s leverage (assuming Chapman moves to the rotation) really does not. This is not to say that leverage does not matter, nor that it could, in the abstract, increase Broxton’s value enough to make him individually worth the deal. The problem with this argument is that even without Chapman in the bullpen, Broxton probably is not the best candidate for the highest-leverage situations. Sean Marshall seems to clearly be a better pitcher than Broxton. Marshall has easily outpitched Broxton the last three seasons. I do not have the space to get too deeply into Marshall. The short version: Marshall’s 2012 performance versus right-handed hitters seems to be fairly random variation given his past platoon performance and repertoire. And even with the big split, Marshall was still pretty awesome in 2012. One could make arguments for other Reds relievers being better than or at least as good as Broxton. Even one or two of them being close to Broxton reduces his deserved priority for high-leverage innings. However, I think Marshall’s excellence is enough by itself to outweigh whatever advantages Broxton might offer over the other options, with or without his Closer Experience. Perhaps just about any contract can seem reasonable looked at long enough. Teams are not just throwing at a dartboard when they make these decisions. When I looked more closely at this and tried to see it from a different perspective, after a little bit of searching, it no longer seemed to necessarily be another generic weird deal for a middle reliever. However, in the end, I think that this contract makes sense only with rosy projections for both the cost of a marginal win as well as Broxton’s health and performance. It probably requires the Reds to use Broxton in higher-leverage innings than his skills relative to other Reds relievers like Marshall warrants. It should be mentioned that all of this assumes that Chapman will not return to the bullpen. This does not mean that the contract is crippling for Cincinnati, but it does make it puzzling.
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