If you were to ask those in the Diamondbacks clubhouse to use one word to describe right-hander Brad Boxberger, one answer would come back as a clear favorite: consistent.
Steven Souza Jr. has known Boxberger since they were first teammates with the Tampa Bay Rays in 2015. To Souza and the rest of their Diamondbacks teammates, Boxberger has a personality that “is as consistent as you can get,” Souza said.
But how does that jive with being a major-league closer, a job known for being one of the most volatile and unpredictable in sports?
As the Diamondbacks’ ninth-inning guy, Boxberger knows he can’t control everything. He knows some saves will slip away from him. Still, Boxberger does his best at not letting the lights get too bright.
“I think he’s the best at bouncing back from that and not letting things snowball,” Souza said.
Boxberger is 30 years old and a full-time closer for the first time since notching 41 saves with the Rays in 2015. As his club entered play Tuesday one half-game in front of the Colorado Rockies for first place in the NL West, the Diamondbacks were as fully committed to Boxberger as ever.
“Brad is our closer,” manager Torey Lovullo said before Tuesday’s series opener against the Los Angeles Angels at Chase Field. “He has a calm demeanor and an ability to stay unfazed. There’s a gift to being able to do that.”
Only two National League closers entered the day with more saves than Boxberger (28), and both play for teams chasing down the Diamondbacks in the standings. Rockies right-hander Wade Davis leads the league with 35 saves, and Los Angeles Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen has 32.
But this season hasn’t gone as consistently as the Diamondbacks would have hoped. Boxberger has struggled mightily on short rest in 2018, a trend that most recently reared its head when he allowed two home runs en route to a blown save in a loss to the Cubs on July 26 at Wrigley Field.
When pitching on one or no days of rest this season, Boxberger has a 6.01 ERA and has allowed 23 hits, 13 runs and 12 walks in 22 such appearances. By contrast, Boxberger holds a 0.94 ERA over 24 appearances when pitching on two or more days of rest.
Since his Chicago debacle — which, incidentally, came on one day of rest — Boxberger has made five appearances and has converted all four of the save chances he’s been given, but he had at least two days of rest between each outing.
Lovullo said good things could come from Boxberger’s workload being tapered off as of late, which has largely been a product of a lack of save situations over the past few weeks.
“We’re asking a lot of our relievers to step into a number of different situations all year long,” Lovullo said. “So any time we can give our relievers a good rest, we’re happy with that. … There’s going to be days where he’ll pitch several days in a row and then he’s going to find himself throwing to a batter or two in a week.”
Lovullo said that pitching on short rest usually yields inflated numbers for all relief pitchers, but it’s certainly been the case for Boxberger this season as well.
“Do I feel like he’s rested? Absolutely,” Lovullo said of Boxberger. “Do I feel like he pitches better when he’s rested? Absolutely.”
Boxberger has had to continually tweak his workflow since undergoing arm surgery in 2016, and he’s had to compensate for some diminished velocity on his fastball. Boxberger averaged 94 mph on his fastball from 2014-15 but has mostly been around 91 mph this season.
However, Boxberger is now using his fastball more than ever. This season, Boxberger is throwing his fastball almost 68 percent of the time, which is an increase from his previous high of 65 percent in 2017.
Boxberger has also gotten back to using his change-up more often, a pitch he shied away from last season. In 2018, Boxberger has thrown his change-up 30 percent of the time, which is an increase of more than 8 percent from his usage of the pitch in 2017.
At a glance, Boxberger’s pitch usage this season more resembles his 2014 and 2015 repertoire than his post-surgery percentages in 2016 and 2017.
But Boxberger, who has never pitched in the playoffs, knows he will soon undergo a challenge far greater than experimenting with pitch usage.
A close pennant race, and a tough remaining schedule that includes 27 of the Diamondbacks’ final 35 games coming against teams with a winning percentage above .500, likely means that Boxberger will be pitching on short rest at some point.
“There’s always a fine line between too much and not enough,” Boxberger said of his usage. “The workload coming in waves is kind of how it goes in this role. Whenever the next wave comes, I’m going to be ready for it.”
Richard Morin covers the Coyotes and Diamondbacks for azcentral sports. He can be reached at [email protected] and by phone at 480-316-2493. Follow him on Twitter @ramorin_azc