Commentary

It's not all in his head

For Jonathan Broxton, and closers in general, confidence is just one part of the game

Updated: August 13, 2010, 9:45 AM ET
By Brian Kamenetzky | ESPNLosAngeles.com

For the record, Jonathan Broxton says he's fine, mind and body inclusive. Ask, and he'll tell you.

"I'm fine," he said.

It was a refrain the Los Angeles Dodgers' closer said last week, and again following Thursday night's meltdown against the Philadelphia Phillies at Citizen's Bank Park.

[+] EnlargeJonathan Broxton
Mitchell Layton/Getty ImagesJonathan Broxton's struggles have coincided with the Dodgers' second-half swoon.

Entering with a three-run lead in a critical game, Broxton hit a batter, then walked the bases full. A Casey Blake error and a double by Carlos Ruiz, and the game was over.

Broxton couldn't find the strike zone, until his hanging slider found too much of it.

"I'm just a little wild right now," he said, "but every pitcher goes through it. Hopefully, I can get it out of my system and be back to my normal self.''

Wild, yes. And since the All-Star break, ineffective. In eight second-half appearances, he's allowed nine earned runs (10 overall), nine hits and 11 walks against five strikeouts. His ERA during that stretch is 10.13. Broxton's swoon has been doubly painful because around him the rest of the team has played poorly over the same stretch, dropping the Dodgers from contention to the fringes of the National League playoff race.

Broxton has twice had high-profile postseason failures against the Phillies. He doesn't say much and, save a periodic fist pump, doesn't display much emotion on the mound. Even when he wins, his giant, round shoulders often roll forward. No wonder, then, the first place people tend to look when things go poorly for Broxton is his head.

A closer has to take the mound believing he can get guys out, but confidence is just one tree in a forest of factors potentially affecting his performance. Why we focus on it reflects as much on us and our comfort level with the player as it does the position. Most of us are hyper-aware of negative consequences and bad experiences, so they probably are, too, right?

"It's a very stressful situation to be put in," Brad Ausmus recently said, and he's caught his share of closers over his 17 years in the bigs. "People assume when they fail two, three, even four times in a short span of time, well they must be losing their confidence because it's so difficult to maintain in the situation, when things aren't going your way. It's an easy assumption."

Save for perhaps kickers in football, there may be no position in sports quite like the closer's. Success is expected, failure disastrous. The other eight innings and everything that did or didn't happen -- errors allowing extra runs to the opposition, squandered offensive opportunities, and so on -- disappear as the game becomes one man's to win or lose.

"The role is very specific," Dr. Andrew Jacobs, a sports psychologist with 30 years experience, currently working with the Kansas City Royals, said Tuesday. "They've got to be able to handle more than any other player in baseball, they've got to be able to forget about failure. It's going to happen. It's reality."

Still, for all the failure inherent in the game, no other role has it codified into stats in quite the same way. Imprecise as they are, two categories define closers: saves and blown saves. Either Closer X gets what he came for, or, quite literally, he blows it. It's not called a "blown home run" when Joey Votto or Albert Pujols return to the dugout without launching a ball over the wall.

Important as it is, the catchall of confidence isn't enough to explain why even the best closers have bouts of ineffectiveness.

[+] EnlargeJonathan Broxton
Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty ImagesBroxton teammate Brad Ausmus has caught his share of closers over his 17 years in the majors and understands the stress of the role.

"The guys that make it are the ones who are able to block [negative influences] out," Jacobs said. "It's the easiest thing to [blame failure on lack of confidence]. And a lot of time it is confidence. But sometimes you throw a really good pitch, and the guy happens to hit it. That has nothing to do with confidence or lack of confidence. But people will write that he's not confident because he failed. I don't buy it."

Even when a reliever seems to be having a crisis of self, there can be more at play. Ausmus was behind the plate when Pujols launched a Brad Lidge offering deep into the Houston night, lifting the Cardinals to a Game 5 win over the Astros during the 2005 NLCS. When Lidge suffered through a catastrophic 2006 season, that bomb was widely credited as the reason.

It wasn't that simple, said Ausmus.

"He was scuffling a little bit with his mechanics and his slider, in particular, that September before that Pujols thing ever happened," he said. Had Lidge continued to struggle with a bread-and-butter pitch, Ausmus said he "absolutely" could have pitched poorly the following year anyway.

"I know people love to point to the Pujols homer as the turning point for Brad Lidge," he said. "I don't like to. I'm not saying it helped, but I don't think it was the root cause of it."

Like every other player on the roster, closers can get out of whack mechanically and physically, knocking a few miles off a fastball or flattening out a breaking pitch, impacting different pitchers in different ways. Rob a little hop from Broxton's fastball, for example, and he suffers.

"He's a power pitcher," Dodgers assistant general manager Logan White, who drafted Broxton in the second round in 2002, said last week. "He relies heavily on being a hard thrower, with a hard breaking ball. He's not a changeup guy. [Eric] Gagne had this great changeup, so even when he's not having his best fastball day he can change speeds on them a little better.

Then there's the issue of "stuff." Look what happened to Gagne when the gap between his fastball and changeup narrowed. A closer has to believe he can succeed in any circumstance, even when the stuff isn't there, but confidence, even to the point of self-delusion, can't compensate for a slider with no slide.

"Broxton isn't a change-speeds kind of guy, and I think that's partially what works against him, just being the type of closer that he is."

Then there's the issue of "stuff." Look what happened to Gagne when the gap between his fastball and changeup narrowed. A closer has to believe he can succeed in any circumstance, even when the stuff isn't there, but confidence, even to the point of self-delusion, can't compensate for a slider with no slide.

No question, stuff can come and go. It has for Broxton, around this time of year. In 2008, in a two-week August stretch covering eight appearances, Broxton allowed runs in five games, racking up two blown saves and three losses. Last season, at the end of July into mid-August, he blew three saves in five chances.

Both times he rebounded, logging dominant Septembers.

"Self-doubt," said Jacobs, "will kill a professional athlete."

At what point a closer passes through mechanical problems or physical issues into a loss of confidence is gray area at best. Once there, the climb back can be brutal. Still, the "confidence" issue is tossed around far too casually. Likely, Broxton entered Thursday's game believing he'd get the job done, but simply failed. He's not much for dwelling in the past, since there is no undoing a moment of failure. The next opportunity, he believes, will end better.

That's his confidence, built on his talent and a fair serving of success. Share it or don't. In September, Broxton could revert to his All-Star form of the first half, ending any questioning of his confidence. Or maybe he won't.

Just understand it's not the only factor in play.

ESPNLosAngeles.com's Tony Jackson contributed to this report. Brian Kamenetzky is a writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com and co-author of the Land O'Lakers blog.

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