In their first game of the 2013 ABL season, the Sydney Blue Sox trotted out an outfield of State League standout Trent Schmutter, Keon Broxton, and Jacob May. The former ABL Rookie of the Year, Schmutter played his last games in the ABL in that 2013-14 season. Broxton cracked Milwaukee’s roster last year after an offseason trade sent him there from the Pirates organization. Now, Jacob May joins Broxton in the big leagues after cracking the White Sox roster.
At the end of the 2013 season, May and Broxton, the latter of whom was then with the Diamondbacks, were sent to Sydney for winter ball. Along with them came Pirates catcher Daniel Arribas and then White Sox infielder Joey DeMichele. Arribas was a defensive specialist to the extreme as he posted a team low 68 wRC+ with his .200 BABIP. Arribas essentially spelled Guy Edmonds behind the plate when Edmonds was either DHing or sitting. DeMichele was a near-average hitter, but it was all BABIP generated as he posted a 3 percent walk rate to go with his .362 BABIP. However, DeMichele left the club midseason.
Playing in Sydney is is a difficult task for any position player. In 2013-14, the park factor for Blue Sox Stadium sat at a paltry 62. However, May and Broxton managed to become impact contributors, thriving in Sydney over the 46-game season. The harsh offensive environment in Blacktown depressed their traditional stats, but park adjustments make them more encouraging.
May sat at a .269/.325/.407 line with a 127 wRC+, on the strength of a seven percent walk rate, eight percent strikeout rate, four home runs, .278 BABIP, and 17 stolen bases. He tied for second on the Blue Sox in long balls with Trent Oeltjen, who hit four in only 53 plate appearances. He also finished second in the ABL in steals to Jon Berti’s all-time leading 31 steals that season. And to top it all off, he was a capable defensive center fielder.
Broxton sat at a lesser line of .231/.313/.333 with a 111 wRC+, a 10 percent walk rate, a 21 percent strikeout rate, two home runs, .288 BABIP, and eleven stolen bases. Broxton slid in at sixth in steals, slightly behind May. In addition to this, Broxton — like May — played quality defense in a corner spot.
With May and Broxton adding to an already-strong core of Mitch Dening, Zach Shepherd, Trent D’Antonio, and Craig Anderson, the Blue Sox finished second in the ABL that season. However, Sydney fell to the Canberra Cavalry in the Wild Card round, who would then fall to the Perth Heat in the Grand Final.
Depending on the year, the ABL is generally considered a level floating between High A and Double A. The mix of players is highly variable. It ranges from former major leaguers to Triple-A types all the way down to guys who aren’t pro quality. Thus, these players are exposed to many different things that they may not have seen up to this point in their careers. Despite subpar performances in the league itself, many players, like Didi Gregorius, come back to the states with a more refined approach.
Broxton, who had been in Double A in 2013, made his way into the Pirates organization in 2014. His bat went to the next level that season. He reduced his strikeout rate from 31.2 percent in 2013 to 25.9 percent in 2014, and his walk rate went up to 12.5 percent. On top of that, he posted highs in both wRC+ (134) and wOBA (.377), and was named Pirates Minor League Player of the Year. He carried his success into 2015 with the Pirates and was promoted twice to Triple A and then the majors in September.
As a big-leaguer, Broxton has been an intriguing player. He’s managed to show signs of improvement in each of his four separate stints in the majors. As his profile notes on his FanGraphs page, Broxton was the most aggressive base-stealer of 2016 by a measure of steals per plate appearance. His 23 steals were no doubt an impressive mark on their own, but he showed very quickly that he is an all-around threat on the basepaths each time he reaches.
Moreover, he also boasts an advanced approach at the plate and a strong power game. Among players with at least 100 plate appearances, Broxton’s 14.8 percent walk rate sat tied for 13th. His power is realized through his exceedingly impressive exit velocity. Broxton’s average exit velocity was behind only Nelson Cruz, Aaron Judge, and Giancarlo Stanton last season. His launch angles are somewhat suboptimal; however, he still shows the ability to hit the ball in the air.
It may simply be a short adjustment away, where he adds a bit of loft in his swing and really starts putting balls over the fence. However, Broxton does have an issue with contact. His 36.1 percent strikeout rate, among those with 100 plate appearances, was the fifth-worst in the majors last season. Despite that, in the second half of the season, it shrunk mightily from rate above 40 percent down to around 30 percent. Once again showing his ability to adjust to the level.
May was sent to Australia with substantially less professional experience than Broxton. Though he was drafted as a junior out of Coastal Carolina, he was still a draftee that year. Despite that, he did outperform Broxton in the ABL, but he hadn’t fully fleshed out his profile in professional ball. After returning from Australia, he had a strong 2014 season in High A with Winston-Salem. He posted what would be his full season highs in both wOBA and wRC+.
May had a bit of trouble in 2015 with the traditionally difficult jump to Double A. He saw his walk rate shrink by more than two percentage points, which played a role in his wRC+ dropping to 90. However, he did match his stolen-base total of 37 in 40 less plate appearances. His Triple-A season also saw negative impacts on his walk and strikeout rates, but he made up for it with an increase in power that led to another 90 wRC+ season.
May posted his second consecutive strong spring this year to earn his call-up. After the departure of Adam Eaton created yet another void in the White Sox outfield, the team needed someone to step up and secure a job in center field with Melky Cabrera in left and this guy in right. After the prohibitive favorite Charlie Tilson went down with a foot injury, May managed to beat out Peter Bourjos for the job. Now, it’s his to seize.
I started working with the Blue Sox in the 2014 offseason, which was immediately after Broxton and May roamed the outfield. When we were reviewing our roster, the holes left by their departure became a focal point. It’s no surprise to me that these two players have been successful to this point on their different paths.
Anthony Rescan is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @AnthonyRescan.