Something seems amiss with Jonathan Broxton, and it's not simply the fact that his hitting coach -- one who has managerial aspirations -- can occasionally get crossed up by the rule book.
No, Broxton's performance has caused concern of late, as he has surrendered 11 runs on 13 hits in 7 1/3 innings in his past eight appearances, the past two of those resulting in losses. Opponents haven't had much trouble getting to him recently, batting .394 against him during that time, and his command hasn't been sharp, as he has walked six hitters and only struck out seven.
These hardly sound like the statistics of a pitcher widely regarded a potential No. 1 fantasy closer, do they? Broxton might have been selected second on average among relievers in the preseason, behind Mariano Rivera, but many argued that he should have been selected first, mainly because he has saves potential comparable to Rivera but blows the New York Yankees veteran away in terms of strikeouts. To the latter point, Broxton totaled 42 more K's than Rivera in 2009 alone, and he has 78 more in the past three seasons combined.
But what Rivera "lacks" in terms of strikeouts -- and that word is used loosely here, because the guy has whiffed 70-plus in each of the past three seasons and is on pace for 61 this year -- he gains in terms of reliability and consistency, as not once all season has he blown back-to-back save opportunities, and only twice all year has he been scored upon in back-to-back outings. Broxton hasn't had suffered blown saves in back-to-back outings, either, but he has been scored upon in three consecutive appearances, and in five of his past eight.
PitchFx shows that a slight drop-off in velocity could be partly to blame for Broxton's recent struggles, as he's averaging just 95.4 mph with his fastball, down from his career-best 97.8 mark of 2009. The only problem with that argument, however, is that his velocity has been down a tick or two all year, not just in the past couple of outings. Recently, though, that has haunted him more; he has generated just 16 swinging strikes out of 169 total pitches thrown (9.5 percent) during his cold spell, whereas in his first 33 appearances, he generated 65 on 498 total pitches, or 13.1 percent, right in line with his previous career numbers.
Naturally, Broxton's owners will probably first wonder whether he's fully healthy, except that manager Joe Torre told the Los Angeles Dodgers' website that there's no concern in that department.
"He says he's fine," Torre said. "Right now, he looks a little out of whack. A lot of it is mechanical."
It could well be a mere mechanical issue, resulting in a brief slump that provides a rare buy-low opportunity for the right-hander. One thing is for certain: Broxton owners have little choice but to be patient with him, primarily because job security isn't an issue for him and therefore means no obvious handcuff. George Sherrill, a former closer who came on to blow Tuesday's game following Broxton's rules-aided early exit, has a horrendous 12.27 ERA in his past nine games, not to mention was recently floated through waivers. Ronald Belisario is on the restricted list for personal reasons. Ramon Troncoso is currently in Triple-A and was just passed over for a promotion in favor of Jack Taschner. Justin Miller has a 6.55 ERA in his past nine appearances, and has been scored upon in eight of 19 total outings.
And if you're wondering about the obvious handcuff candidate, All-Star Hong-Chih Kuo, Torre seems to prefer using him in situational outings, judging by his having entered 11 of his past 22 appearances with runners on base, two more of those 22 with no runners on but an out already recorded in the inning, and 14 of his past 22 in the seventh inning or earlier. Kuo is the natural pick in the event of emergency, but he's no imminent threat to Broxton's job security.
Winds of change?
They're at it again -- "they" being Chicago White Sox closer Bobby Jenks, blowing more save chances, and manager Ozzie Guillen talking about a potential change in the ninth inning. After Jenks' second loss in his past three appearances Wednesday night, Guillen told ESPNChicago.com that "our options are open now."
"I'm going to put the guys there with the best shot," Guillen said. "When I [changed Jenks' role] last time [in May], it worked out again because all of a sudden we come back and I put him in the eighth inning and I like the way he threw the ball and I put him back in the closing spot."
While it's true that the last time Guillen considered such a switch, Jenks immediately rebounded with one of the hotter streaks of his career -- 14-of-14 in save chances with a 2.29 ERA in a 21-game stint from May 11-July 7 -- there's an important difference in the White Sox's bullpen this time: the performance of Jenks' primary setup man J.J. Putz. A former closer himself, Putz has pitched 25 consecutive scoreless appearances dating back to May 14 -- almost directly coinciding with the last time Jenks' job was in jeopardy -- during which time he has a 0.60 WHIP, .140 BAA, five wins, two saves and nine holds.
At the same time, however, Matt Thornton -- his shaky All-Star appearance aside -- has been rock-solid for more than a month, too. He has 15 consecutive scoreless appearances, during which time he has a 1.14 WHIP and .205 BAA, and Guillen has shown many times in the past his willingness to use Thornton in situational opportunities in the ninth inning.
Unfortunately, that means Jenks' fantasy owners can't handcuff him to just one reliever, and chances are any save opportunities in the short term might be divided somewhat evenly between the three, or perhaps just Putz and Thornton. That limits their appeal in the saves category, though Putz and Thornton are clearly contributing enough to help teams in ERA, WHIP and K's. Both are worthy pickups in all formats, particularly AL-only leagues.
TOP 75 RELIEF PITCHERS
Note: Tristan H. Cockcroft's top 75 relief pitchers are ranked for their expected performance from this point forward, not for statistics that have already been accrued.
Orioles activate Mike Gonzalez
In all seriousness, Alfredo Simon's owners (all 48.2 percent of you) might not have much to sweat about. The right-hander has been an adequate stand-in for Gonzalez for much of the year, and in his past 13 outings he has converted seven of eight save chances with a 3.07 and .200 BAA, albeit with seven walks allowed in 14 2/3 innings. Gonzalez won't immediately reclaim his old closer gig; he'll first be forced to work a few outings in middle relief to prove his worth.
As for Gonzalez's chances of proving his worth, his recent rehabilitation assignment -- spanning 12 appearances at four different minor league stops -- was a bit up-and-down. In total, he had a 4.26 ERA, 1.26 WHIP and .260 BAA -- respectable numbers but not exactly befitting an experienced, hard-throwing reliever who pitched six of his games below the Double-A level. Gonzalez allowed three home runs along the way, and his velocity didn't exceed 93 mph, often ranging lower.
Middle reliever spotlight: Jose Veras, Florida Marlins
You might remember this name as belonging to the former Yankees right-hander who could throw hard and had an above-average curveball, but for whom consistency was not a friend. Veras did receive several opportunities in pinstripes, and at times flashed the potential that had the Yankees suggesting he might someday have the makings of a closer, but upon the conclusion of his parts of four seasons with the team, he had a forgettable 4.43 ERA and 1.39 WHIP.
Given another chance to capture a late-inning role with the Marlins, Veras has begun opening some eyes again with another hot streak, much like the one he had during a two-month spell with the Yankees in 2008, when he had a 1.33 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, .196 BAA and 31 K's in 27 innings during a 27-game stretch from June 5-Aug. 6. Since his promotion on June 25, Veras has tossed 12 shutout innings over 10 appearances, registering a 0.67 WHIP, .150 BAA and 15 K's. Most importantly, his command has been sharper than ever before at the big league level, as he has but two walks. To put that into perspective, before Veras' most recent big league stint, he had averaged 4.94 walks per nine innings in 132 career appearances.
Numbers like that have Veras rising in the Marlins' bullpen pecking order, to the point that he has holds in each of his past three appearances and four of five, each of those times working a scoreless seventh inning. Clay Hensley remains the clear eighth-inning choice on this team -- Hensley's 2.90 ERA and 1.17 WHIP have earned him that -- but it could be argued that in the event of a Leo Nunez trade, Veras might actually have the stuff more fit to close. After all, Hensley isn't nearly as hard a thrower, relying more upon changing speeds and hitting spots.
Fantasy owners shouldn't make any significant investments in Veras yet, but if you're in an NL-only league speculating for cheap saves, he's worth stashing on your bench at least until after the trade deadline passes.
Upgrade your roster
Though his prospects for saves aren't great, Marshall has established himself as one of the most reliable relievers in terms of wins, ERA, WHIP and K's this season, and if you're in a situation where you're protecting your ratios, he'd be a smart add.
Consider this: Among relief pitchers, Marshall ranks third in baseball in wins (6), 16th in ERA among those with 30-plus innings (1.85), 17th in WHIP (0.99), sixth in strikeouts (57) and ninth in outs recorded (146). In fact, if you increase those ratio minimums to 40-plus innings, he's a top-10 pitcher in either category, and in terms of earned value in ERA and WHIP, he's eighth and 14th if you sort solely by those departments using our Player Rater.
Meanwhile, it might seem bold to drop a possible "closer" in Heilman for a clear-cut middle reliever, but these are two pitchers whose values have gone in opposite directions recently in every other category but saves (and even in that department, they might currently be identical in worth). Since recording his first save of the season June 19, Heilman has a 4.85 ERA and 1.77 WHIP, and in his past seven outings he wasn't even called upon in a save situation.
Juan Gutierrez has each of the Diamondbacks' past two saves, and seems to have a grip on the closer role in the desert despite a 5.40 ERA and three home runs allowed in eight appearances in the month of July. If you're desperate for saves, he's the smarter play in Arizona, and one could argue that rookie Sam Demel is a smarter use of a roster spot in NL-only formats than Heilman, too.
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.