I was looking through a ton of relief pitcher metrics this evening in order to figure out, and decipher, who exactly has been the best relief pitcher this season in the entire Majors. I analyzed a number of informative pieces of material that led me to come across Jonathan Broxton as the most effective, and dominant, closer in the Majors this year. He is by far the most valuable, most dominant, and most outstanding closer in the Majors right now. It's not even really a question about it. The only two who even come remotely close to Broxton appears to be Joe Nathan and Rafael Soriano. A quick look at how dominant Broxton is shows that nearly 41% of the plate appearances against him this season have ended in a strikeout. That's not a misprint. He's been that dominating. So I started to think about who Broxton's dominance reminds me of. And I came across none other than Eric Gagne. In 2003, Gagne had nearly 45% of the plate appearances against him end in a strikeout.
Broxton has peppered the strike zone this season to the tune 63.7% mark in terms of First Strike Percentage. During Gagne's remarkable 2003 run, he was at 65.0%. The biggest difference between the two, however, appears to be in Contact Rate for opposing batters, both inside and outside of the strike zone. The opposition was making contact at a 68.5% rate on pitches inside the zone against Gagne in 2003 while flailing wildly at pitches outside which led to them recording just a 28.0% contact rate on pitches outside the zone back in 2003. Broxton is at 79.3% and 36.6%, respectively. While not up to the level of Gagne, it's still a pretty amazing sight to behold.
Yet there happens to be two final areas in which Broxton falls a tad shy of Gagne's 2003 dominance. Those areas, ultimately, happen to be FIP and tRA. Gagne's 2003 marks will, in all honesty, most likely never be duplicated ever again in the history of Major League Baseball. His FIP was a mind-boggling 0.86 while his tRA was at 0.64 in 2003. He was 33 and 41 pRAA in 2003, depending on which site you look at. His WAR ranges between 4.5 and 4.8, depending on which site you look at. Gagne's 4.5 WAR, if you choose to look at that one, was so high that the next closest reliever to him, John Smoltz, was at 3.0 that year. However, Broxton's FIP and tRA, 1.46 and 1.77, respectively, do not come close to Gagne's level. But, what if you were to look at Broxton as the median between Gagne's great 2002 season and his otherworldly 2003 season? That's where Broxton is right now.
Note: tRA was not available back in 2002. However, Gagne's 2004 season was close to his 2002 season so I'll use that season's tRA.
Eric Gagne : 1.80 FIP, 2.04 tRA, 3.3 WAR, 12.46 K/9, 0.66 HR/9, 5.40 WPA
Eric Gagne : 0.86 FIP, 0.64 tRA, 4.5 WAR, 14.98 K/9, 0.22 HR/9, 5.62 WPA
Jonathan Broxton : 1.46 FIP, 1.77 tRA, 2.1 WAR, 14.39 K/9, 0.20 HR/9, 3.00 WPA
When going through the data that I've come across, perhaps Broxton's 2009 campaign is a lot like Gagne's 2002 season. It was the breakout year for Gagne and the year that he let the National League know that he was here to stay. It sure seems like Broxton has done that this season. Yet, in a very small way, Broxton has showcased himself to be the median between Gagne's 2002 closer debut and his 2003 dominance. Broxton's fastball-slider combination is much like Gagne's fastball-changeup combination. It's as potent and it's as ridiculous. They both possessed that third out-pitch. For Broxton, it's the changeup. For Gagne, it was the curveball. Each man has supreme control, mindset, and ferocity. Each man possesses three plus-plus pitches. Each man is the most dominant closer in his day. And, while others might not agree, Broxton certainly has shown that he is. Maybe not in terms of longevity but in the here and now, he is the best. It truly goes to show how amazing Gagne was those years and it's quite remarkable to look at Broxton's season this year and fathom that he is coming close to the Gagne level of excellence.
Is Jonathan Broxton the next Eric Gagne? No. At least, not yet. But, he almost is. And almost, at least for now, is good enough.