Headed into the season, we were very in on Keon Broxton as a breakout possibility for Milwaukee. Though a .242/.354 /.430 line in 2016 was only slightly above the Major League average, there was a lot more to be interested in if you looked under the hood -- like, for example, how hard he hit the ball.
In 2016, Broxton hit 49 percent of his batted balls at 95 mph or harder, and that's a big deal, because 95 mph is the breakpoint where exit velocity really matters. (Major Leaguers hit .540 at 95 mph or above, and just .218 below.) It's a real skill because only eight of the 391 hitters with 100 batted balls put the ball in play at 95 mph or higher more often, and we're talking some truly elite sluggers, guys such as Jose Cabrera, Josh Donaldson and Nelson Cruz. Throw in Broxton's plus speed and defense with his powerful hitting, and you can see why we were buying in on him, even despite the fractured wrist that ended his year.
So the quiet hype machine got fired up and ... of course, Broxton came out and hit all of .133/.220/.267 with 21 strikeouts in his first 15 games of the season. That's a 42 percent strikeout rate that was, through that point of the year, the second highest in baseball behind only another talented-but-struggling center fielder, Byron Buxton. At one point, Broxton went hitless in 18 plate appearances. He wasn't making contact, he wasn't hitting it as hard when he was, and to add injury to insult, he was hit in the face by a pitch, too.
It was easy -- perhaps too easy -- to write him off. Hopefully you've been paying attention since. Broxton's been crushing the ball once again. Just check out, for example, his seasonal exit velocity, shown here as a 20-batted ball rolling average. The trend is immediately noticable.
Over the past month, entering Friday, Broxton has hit as well as Manny Machado. Over the past two weeks, during which he's hit .410/.465/.744, he's hit as well as Buster Posey, Michael Conforto and Kristopher Bryant.
So what changed? Perhaps most important, Broxton's team didn't overreact.
"We've got to put him out there and let him go through it," Brewers manager Craig Counsell told MLB.com's Adam McCalvy on April 19. "He'll get back on it and he'll find it. The reason you do it is because when he does [find it], we all saw that it's a very impactful player. That's worth waiting for."
It sure seems that's being proven, though it's also interesting to note that Broxton is a tinkerer -- he made a large change in his hand position last season -- and according to one local report, when he was bottoming out in mid-April, he made a change to back off the plate, which he claimed helped him not get jammed so easily on inside pitches. The numbers certainly back that up. Through April 20, his exit velocity on inside pitches was 87.5. Since April 21, it's 93.1.
Of course, it's not just about inside pitches, as you can see from this exit velocity before-and-after GIF. Earlier in the year, the only pitches Broxton was making solid contact on were middle-middle. While he still has trouble making contact high in the zone (a strategy we saw in the first week of the season), he's also making more solid contact both in and out.
Gif: Keon Broxton exit velocity chart
You can't get to good exit velocity without making contact, of course. After striking out in a whopping 46 percent of plate appearances through April 20, Broxton is down to a more manageable 29 percent since. He's making more contact; he's making more hard contact. Broxton is also going opposite field more often, 43 percent of the time since April 20 as opposed to 33 percent before.
Still, if we caution against overreacting to a poor first few weeks, we shouldn't also go crazy over a good past few weeks. Much as we like Broxton, we'll take the seriously hard "under" on him hitting like Bryant or Posey for a full season, and since he has only 355 career plate appearances, it's not like we have a ton of data on him yet.
But let's use what we have. Broxton was recalled from Triple-A last May 20, nearly exactly a year ago, and save for a few July weeks back in the Minors and the wrist injury, he's been in the bigs ever since. Since May 20, 2016, there's been 396 hitters with 100 balls in play, and that timespan includes Broxton's slow pre-demotion spring, his hot late summer and both sides of his 2017.
In that time, Broxton has hit a higher percentage of his batted balls at 95 mph, or higher than Paul Goldschmidt, Mark Trumbo or Justin Turner. On those 95-plus batted balls, he's got a higher slugging percentage than Michael Trout or Anthony Rizzo. Broxton has obviously done it in fewer plate appearances, and contact will always be an issue; of 281 hitters who have seen 500 pitches since that date, he has the fourth-highest swinging strike rate, behind only Chris Carter, Kirk Nieuwenhuis and Chris Davis.
Of course, Nieuwenhuis is a fourth outfielder hitting .080 for the Brewers. Carter and Davis are slugging first basemen who aren't capable of playing an above-average center field, like Broxton is, as you saw earlier this year when he robbed Jose Peraza on a ball with only a 32 percent Catch Probability:
And few are capable of getting from home to second in 7.6 seconds, as Broxton did last July. That's tied with Jose Altuve and Trea Turner for their fastest 2016 home-to-second times, and only two right-handed hitters managed to leg out the distance from home to second faster than that more than once -- and as you might expect, that was the elite Buxton and Billy Hamilton.
Not every rebuild comes on the back of top Draft picks. Sometimes you have to find that diamond in the rough. Broxton only just turned 27 last week, and the Brewers acquired him in a little-noticed 2015 deal for a player the Pirates parted ways with months ago. If this Milwaukee step back does turn into a step forward, we're betting that Broxton will be a key piece why. The more we learn about the skill of exit velocity, the more impressive it is when it comes from a player who's a slick fielder, too.