The One Ball Keon Broxton Didn’t Catch

On July 10th, the Brewers were in Miami to face the Marlins in a game that didn’t seem to have anything of note going into it. Jhoulys Chacin was facing Pablo Lopez, there were no stats leaders in the game, and playoff spots weren’t directly at stake. After both teams put up a run in the first inning, J.T. Riddle stepped in and whacked a slider in the middle of the zone to center field.

Okay, “whacked” might be an exaggeration. It exited the bat at only 71.1 mph and, with a launch angle of 30 degrees, represented a pretty standard short fly ball. Fortunately for Riddle, it was well placed and landed in front of the center fielder for a single. Despite Starlin Castro coming around to score and giving the Marlins an early 2-1 lead, it would ultimately go for naught: the Brewers put up four in the top of the second and went on to an easy 8-4 win.

Seems like a throwaway single in a relatively meaningless game, right? On the one hand, yes. On the other, there’s something interesting in that moment, and it has nothing to do with Riddle or the Marlins. Rather, it’s an interesting event for Brewers center fielder Keon Broxton. “But why?” I hear you say. “He didn’t catch the ball. Sure, it looks like he considered diving there for a brief second, but he didn’t and let the ball land.” However, the fact that the ball landed is what’s notable. That bloop single is the only ball hit to Broxton in 2018 — with a catch probability greater than 0% — that he didn’t catch. And he was only a couple of strides from reaching it at that! In a part-time role, necessitated by his poor hitting and the Brewers’ very crowded outfield, Broxton is putting up an unprecedented defensive season.

Keon Broxton has always been a prodigous athlete. From a youth that involved skateboarding tricks to earning a football scholarship from Florida Atlantic, he’s got athleticism flowing in his veins. That athleticism was recognized in baseball, as well, as it helped him rise to the third round in the 2009 draft and saw him rated the best athlete in minor-league systems on several occasions. To this day, Broxton’s sprint speed — 29.7 m/s in 2018, eighth-best in baseball — is a testament to the man’s athleticism.

It’s that combination of speed and athleticism that has allowed Broxton to stay in center field, where he has excelled. In the two-plus seasons that Broxton has occupied a part-time role, he has always put up positive numbers on the defensive end. In 2016, Broxton added 9 outs above average (OAA) according to Statcast, adding 6% to any given play’s catch probability. He followed that up in 2017 with 10 OAA and 4% catch probability. Both of these outs-above-average numbers were among the top 20 in all of baseball, cementing Broxton as a clear plus defensive outfielder.

This season has continued that pattern. To this point, Broxton has put up 6 OAA, 15th-best in baseball. The only four players who have finished higher than him in recent years (so far) are Billy Hamilton, Ender Inciarte, Jackie Bradley Jr., and teammate Lorenzo Cain. So, again, Broxton is good at defense, but there’s something more here. Hamilton leads all outfielders in OAA with 14 in approximately 750 innings. Inciarte stands at 13 OAA in 810 innings. Cain and Bradley come in at 10 and 7 OAA in 678 and 742 innings, respectively.

Broxton’s 6 outs above average comes in only 98.2 innings played! Broxton has put up nearly half as many outs above average as the league leader in a seventh of the time. How can you get that many outs above average in so short of a time? Broxton adds 16% catch probability to any given play. Think about that: Broxton takes a 50-50 ball and turns it into something that is an out twice as often as it is a hit. This is by far the highest ever in the Statcast era, as 2017 Franchy Cordero trails behind with merely 11% catch probability added.

Now, this is of course an incredibly small sample size, and defensive statistics are especially variable in small samples, but Broxton’s season is downright historic. If we looked at his DRS/1000 innings, Broxton would have by far the highest total for outfielders with at least 100 innings. Even in a table dominated by low innings totals — leading to much more variability and therefore higher number — Broxton’s unheard-of 101.35 DRS/1000 more than doubles the next-best total.

Top DRS/1000 Seasons
Name Season Innings DRS DRS/1000
Keon Broxton 2018 98.2 10 101.4
Juan Lagares 2018 128.1 6 46.8
Darrell Ceciliani 2015 129.1 6 46.4
Juan Perez 2013 218.0 10 45.9
Jerry Hairston 2012 109.0 5 45.9
Justin Christian 2011 113.0 5 44.3
Brett Carroll 2007 121.2 5 41.1
Jason Ellison 2007 123.0 5 40.7
Harrison Bader 2018 420.2 17 40.4
DeWayne Wise 2009 371.1 15 40.4

With this elite level of defense, why is Broxton only getting 98 innings played and 46 plate appearances? Well, he isn’t the strongest hitter. On the year, he is batting .179 and striking out over 30% of the time. His exit velocity is down to 81.6 mph and his launch angle is actually negative. It’s easy to see why he’s riding the bench more often than not. Despite these downsides, however, Broxton’s offense has some positives. He has a past history of hitting alright, putting up a 110 wRC+ in 250 plate appearances in 2016. Even in 2018, he’s walking over 15% of the time, has an ISO of .179, and his wRC+ is only at 82. This is an entirely playable level of offense with the level of defense he is currently putting up.

At least it would be if there weren’t also a second problem for Broxton: the Brewers’ outfield is beyond crowded. You have the aforementioned Cain, who at age 32 has seemingly gotten better. Then there’s 2011 NL MVP Ryan Braun, 2018 All-Star Christian Yelich, Eric Thames, and top-100 prospect Brett Phillips. Even if the DH was suddenly made universal across baseball, plate appearances would still be at a premium for this team. It won’t get any easier for Broxton, either. Cain is signed through 2022, Yelich through 2021, Braun through 2020, and Phillips hasn’t even gotten through his first year of service time. If Broxton wants playing time, he’d have to go elsewhere.

With this crowded state of the outfield, Broxton becomes an interesting and expendable asset. The Brewers are in a tight Wild Card race with five other teams. While their outfield is very strong, their rotation is weak and their middle-infield production is poor. They’ve lost out on Machado and will have to move on to upgrading their infield elsewhere. Depending on the player, the Brewers might view Phillips as too high of a price to pay. However, they would probably be willing to part with Broxton while trading teams may take a chance on a player who is blocked, only 26 years old, provides elite defense, and currently puts up offense only around 20% below league average and may have room for growth.

As the season continues, Broxton is sure to regress. To continue at this level would be absolutely historic, and we can’t expect historic levels to continue when they occur in small samples. More bloop singles will fall in, a near-catch will be ruled a trap, an error or two will occur. With that, Broxton will fall behind his unprecedented pace. Even despite this, though, teams should be paying close attention as the trade deadline approaches. With the crowded Brewers outfield, a rebuilding team may be able to pick up an elite defensive center fielder for cheap, an opportunity that rarely presents itself and one that they should exploit.

Stephen Loftus is a Visiting Assistant Professor in Mathematical Sciences at Sweet Briar College in Virginia. In his spare time he usually can be found playing the pipe organ or working on his rambling sabermetric thoughts.

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Lunch Anglemember
5 years ago

Side question: how did Riddle only hit that ball at 77 mph? That was a full swing, from a hitters count, at a hanging slider. He connected with the fat part of the bat, and a 30 degree launch angle means he didn’t get under it too much. And yet it was a fly ball weak enough to drop in front of a speedy OF. I guess that’s what separates the poor hitters from the good hitters.

5 years ago
Reply to  Lunch Angle

A ton of it is quality of the contact, and JT Riddle himself.

Riddle isn’t a powerful batter – usually running ISOs in the low to mid .100’s. His swing, if. you watch closely, didn’t seem ‘strong’ in a sense that he swung flat and opened his lower body slightly too early, just enough to rob some power. The flat bat path would generate a line drive, if struck well. Hitting at 30 degree launch angle implies he ‘got under it’ a little bit, hitting the bottom of the ball instead of the center.