It’s the second installment of Nine Positions in Nine Days (NPIND)! Let’s get started.
At the beginning of Spring Training, it was clear that many of the positions had been filled out. We had a general idea of who would receive the most playing time at each spot. However, the position that yielded the most question marks was center field. The Brewers didn’t really have a favorite to win the position in camp out of the gates, and it ended up being one of the last positional spots decided. The battle was eventually won by Keon Broxton, as he would receive the Opening Day start against the Giants.
First off, let me admit that I was disappointed we never received the chance to see Rymer Liriano get a shot with the team. His season was hindered immediately when he was hit in the face by a pitch during a Spring Training game and was sidelined on the DL for a few months. He never cleared the hurdles necessary for a comeback and just recently, the White Sox claimed him off of waivers. Who knows, perhaps Liriano could’ve been another diamond in the rough find similar to Junior Guerra. He’d shown flashes of power when he was a member of the Padres organization. However, he just had a difficult time trying to bring that success game in and game out.
Anyway, back to how things transpired in center field in Milwaukee this past year. Here are the number of starts made by each player in center field:
Kirk Nieuwenhuis (83)
Keon Broxton (68)
Ramon Flores (29)
Hernan Perez (8)
Michael Reed (5)
Alex Presley (5)
Domingo Santana (3)
Jake Elmore (2)
Since he made the most number of starts, we’ll discuss Captain Kirk first. This year, Nieuwenhuis played by far the most ever games in a single season of his career. Prior to this year, his career high was 91 games with the 2012 Mets. That translated into 314 plate appearances, which when compared to this season, is 78 less (392 PA in 125 games).
Nothing really stood out from Nieuwenhuis this season. There weren’t times in which we said, “Wow, what an integral piece to this team he is!” But then again, nobody was holding him to those sorts of expectations when he initially came to Milwaukee. His intentions were to keep the ship afloat and that’s pretty much what he did. His .209 average was by no mean’s eye-catching, but again — did anybody really expect him to be above average?
However, perhaps my favorite story line from this season was Captain Kirk’s success against the Cubs. Words fail to describe it. In 53 plate appearances, Nieuwenhuis slashed a .333/.472/.762. He also loved playing long ball with the Cubs, as he went yard five separate occasions on them this year. As you can imagine, his heat map looks pretty nice:
Boy, is that seeing the ball well or what? Maybe Cleveland should insert him into their lineup for tonight’s Game 7.
However, despite the massive success against the Cubs this season, don’t expect Nieuwenhuis to be the Opening Day starter once April rolls around. That position deserves to go to Keon Broxton for the second consecutive year.
Through the first part of 2016, Broxton struggled — mightily. He didn’t get a single hit in April. In 22 plate appearances in May, he was only able to conjure a .158 batting average. That didn’t get much better the following month either, as June came and went with a .192 average. However, things began to click soon. On July 4, Broxton was sent down to Triple-A Colorado Springs. He would stay there until July 25. From that point on, he saw the ball as if it were a softball. The month of August provided Broxton with 96 plate appearances and he took advantage of most of those, posing a .275 average. He finally began to harness his power during that stint as well, knocking out four dingers and mixing in nine RBI’s.
All in all, Broxton’s success at the plate would continue to rise dramatically as the season progressed into its sunset stage, smacking a .311 average in the months of September and October, which was good enough to evolve his second half average a few ticks below .300 at .294.
Here are some illustrations that provide just how drastic the change in his game was:
The heat map above shows Broxton’s year from April 4 (Opening Day) through the date he was sent down to Triple-A. Only a few desolate spots of red. If you remember right, it was pretty putrid to watch. You probably could’ve put a ball on a tee and there would’ve been no contact. However, the tables turned:
Here’s his heat map from when he was called back up. Extremely different. This also details Broxton’s plate discipline improvement in the second half. His Z-Swing % of 65.5 percent (percentage of pitches a batter swings at inside the strike zone) translated into a Z-Contact % of 77.2 percent (percentage of times a batter makes contact with the ball when swinging at pitches inside the strike zone). His wrist injury in Chicago was extremely devastating to see, as he was finally peaking and playing his best ball of the year.
Broxton’s strong coming on in the second half of the year has to be enough to earn him the starting job in 2017. Obviously, Craig Counsell will weigh all of his possible options, but you have to think Broxton has the lead in this positional race. It’s hard to take it away from him given his improvement once he lowered his hands at the plate and changed his approach.
One of the real questions that circulates around this is how long the position will be in Broxton’s hands. By no means is he set to be the center fielder of the future. We all know that. But how long will it be before Lewis Brinson, who many people do project to be the center fielder of the future, take over the position for good? From what we’ve seen with Brinson in Triple-A, it seems more than likely that he will receive a call-up next season (a September call-up at the bare minimum). However, what remains to be unknown is how he’ll approach it. You’d like to think that Counsell would gradually ease him into the position and not force anything upon him, but you never know. Again, who knows. Perhaps the Brewers could be in the midst of the Wild Card race with a Broxton as their everyday center fielder and decide to ride him out while providing Brinson glimpses of action.
Nonetheless, it’s safe to assume Broxton will be carrying the role as the everyday starting center fielder. He earned it with his performance in the final months of the year and it will likely remain to be his until Brinson or Phillips proves it’s their time to shine.
However, always start Nieuwenhuis against the Cubs. Always.