On December 17th, Brewers rookie GM David Stearns made a deal with Pittsburgh that made some waves but likely didn't register with the baseball community at large. He traded Jason Rogers, who was expected to get a crack at being Milwaukee's everyday first baseman, to the Pirates in exchange for CF Keon Broxton and RHP prospect Trey Supak. Eight months later may be too early to declare a winner in the trade, but Milwaukee is officially the clubhouse leader.
Broxton has been up and down between Milwaukee and Triple-A Colorado Springs several times this season, but this time it looks like he's here to stay. Since his latest call-up on July 25th, Broxton has been destroying baseballs. He's hitting .361/.465/.667 with five home runs, 10 stolen bases, and a 198 wRC+. Here's the full list of National League outfielders with a higher wRC+ over that time frame:
This was a very difficult reality to imagine for Brewers fans who watched Broxton to begin the season. The 26-year-old earned the opening day start in center field after a hot spring, but his Brewers debut went about as poorly as it possibly could have: In six games, Broxton went 0-for-17 with 11 strikeouts. He was swiftly demoted to Triple-A to find a fix, which he apparently did in making a mechanical change to his stance.
Broxton's performance this month has finally begun to pique the interest of a more national audience, but Broxton has been among the best center fielders in baseball since May. If we cut his horrendous six game debut from his line, Broxton is hitting .283/.399/.500 this season with a 139 wRC+ that would rank 3rd among center fielders — better than Dexter Fowler, Jackie Bradley Jr., and a host of other very good baseball players. Broxton isn't just staking a claim to the starting gig in Milwaukee, he's taking a shot at stardom.
While Broxton's breakout has been going on for much longer than just his most recent call-up, there remain some small concerns about his true talent level. Broxton has registered a .394 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) in 2016, a figure that is unsustainable for even the best major league hitters: Only 52 players have recorded a full season with a BABIP over .380 in the integration era, and of those only eight have done so twice.
There are two skills, however, that lend themselves to a higher-than-average BABIP, and Broxton possesses them both in spades. The first is speed — a player who can get to first base faster will be able to beat out more throws for infield hits — and Broxton can fly. Go ahead and put a pin in this, and we'll come back to it later.
The second is the ability to hit the ball hard — a ball, just like the player who hit it, that is traveling faster will get to where it's going sooner, and will therefore more easily find gaps in the defense. You probably understand that because you passed sixth grade science! Broxton's percentage of hard hit balls this season has been skyrocketing right along with the rest of his offensive numbers. Want some charts? Hell yeah! Charts!
This might look like a chart showing the confidence level of Cubs fans this season, but no! It's showing us how Broxton's emergence has coincided with his pounding the baseball more. Broxton isn't just hitting the ball harder than he was earlier this season, though. He's hitting the ball harder than anyone else in the league. Anyone.
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Broxton isn't just hitting the ball harder, on average, than the likes of Nelson Cruz and Giancarlo Stanton; he's hitting it a lot harder. The difference between Broxton and Cruz is equal to the difference between Cruz and Tommy Pham, who ranks sixth. He's doing that not only by driving the ball hard but also by avoiding making poor contact — his minimum exit velocity is easily the highest of anyone in the league (minimum 30 batted ball events), and his 10.3 percent soft contact rate would be the second lowest in the league if he had the at-bats to qualify.
All that said, however, Broxton's BABIP numbers will still come down, even if they'll likely settle much higher than the average major leaguer. In order to maintain his offensive production, Broxton will need to cut the issue that has always been the major knock on his game, his strikeout rate. Broxton hovered around 30 percent throughout his minor league career, and he obviously didn't put any fears behind him with his inauspicious debut this season. How's he doing with that?
Wow, yeah, that seems good! Obviously, it's still too high, but for a rookie who has consistently struggled to make contact, that kind of steady and dramatic improvement is about as much as you can ask for. Keon makes up a bit for his strikeouts with a sky-high 15.4 percent walk rate, a figure that ranks among the league leaders. Broxton's plate discipline numbers look great: He's offering at just 20.9 percent of balls outside the zone and 67.1 percent of strikes. In order to cut down on strikeouts, Broxton needs to start making contact with balls in the strike zone more than his 78.2 percent rate that ranks among the lowest in baseball. Still, the batting eye is here, and it'll help him stick around.
Alrighty, y'all still got that "Keon Broxton is fast" pinned? Thanks, I'll grab that from you. Broxton has 17 steals this year (three more than the Baltimore Orioles), despite having just 162 plate appearances. More impressively, he's done it in only 18 attempts for a ridiculous 94.4 percent success rate that leads all of baseball and would be the 27th-best in major league history (min. 15 attempts).
And yet! Broxton's baserunning contributions have not been as high as they could, and perhaps should, be. His XBT rate (the clip at which he has taken the extra base on a hit while he is on base) is 40 percent, which is right in line with the league average. That's not bad, but players with his speed should be better: The rest of the league leaders in stolen bases are in the 50s and 60s. With more experience, we'll probably see him advance more often, increasing his value further.
Broxton is quickly blossoming into a legitimate starter in center fielder, and he still has places to grow. With Rogers' (complete lack of) performance this season — he's hit .071 in 19 plate appearances — Broxton looks like another big success for Stearns, who has already hit on other cheap offseason gets in Aaron Hill, Jonathon Villar and Junior Guerra. As the rest of the baseball world catches up, the Brewers, who have made a number of splashy moves in acquiring big-time outfield talent in the past 13 months, might have a very nice problem on their hands after finding a diamond in the rough.
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Travis Sarandos is a contributor at Beyond the Box Score, a staff writer at BP Milwaukee and Disciples of Uecker, and a very nice person. You can follow him on Twitter at @travis_mke.