Jonathan Broxton's Imminent Return

One year ago today, Jonathan Broxton’s ERA was 0.92. Through 29-1/3 innings, he had 42 strikeouts and three walks. It’s weird to read those numbers now. It’s like someone explaining to you how Aerosmith used to make good music in the ‘70s. So distant, so foreign.

Broxton’s trip to the disabled list was perhaps the least surprising news of the 2011 season. If a pitcher can go from dominant to flammable that quickly without an injury, the game of baseball makes even less sense than it normally does. Broxton went down with elbow pain, but if there was a surprise in the news, it’s that Broxton wasn’t that hurt. He needed a DL stint, sure, but there wasn’t a tendon-eating badger living in his elbow like one might have expected based on his performance -- just a bone spur and a bruise.

He’s close to returning, and Don Mattingly wants to get him ready for ninth innings as soon as possible:

"I think we'll try to get him into some games first," Mattingly said. "(But) I think it would be best (for him to close) if he is throwing the ball the way he is capable of. Again, right now, we have to get him in there and see what it looks like."

The eagerness is a little puzzling, but I suppose it’s not like Mattingly is going to say, "That guy? I’ll use him if I’m spelunking, and I need a human torch. But pitching in close games? Only if Andre Ethier pitched the night before." But let’s assume that Mattingly is being honest, that if Broxton’s stuff is there, he’ll get a shot at his old job sooner rather than later.

It’s a nice sentiment, a manager giving a vote of confidence to one of his fallen stars. But if there’s a right way to handle Broxton, I doubt that "see if he throws hard, and then kick him off the diving board" is it. His struggles have been so profound and unexpected -- and there wasn’t a health problem that was a clear smoking gun -- that it would make sense for the Dodgers to ease him in as slowly as possible.

This was the game that broke him. Or, perhaps, it was the game in which it was revealed that he was broken. The Yankees came into the ninth, down by four, against the most untouchable closer in the game. After striking out Mark Teixeira, the Dodgers were almost assured of the victory. Not quite, though. Broxton finished the inning having thrown 48 pitches, the most he had ever thrown in one game in the big leagues.

While it’s pretty irresponsible to pretend that’s the only possible reason for his decline, there sure is a clean before-and-after to his career. Before that game, he was dominant. Since that game, Broxton has put up a 7.02 ERA over 45 games. His control has vanished. He’s more prone to the home run. His velocity is down.

What happened after that game? Did he hurt something physically? Mentally? I don’t know. More importantly, I doubt the Dodgers know either. Don’t get me wrong -- I’m a Giants fan, and I’d prefer that Mattingly sent home the entire starting rotation and said, "Broxy, I’m going to have you start every day to build up your arm strength for the rest of the year. Also, you’re hitting cleanup." But with his struggles still a total enigma, the Dodgers would be wise to keep him out of high-pressure situations until it’s obvious that he’s something approaching his old self.

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