It’s not time to panic. It’s time to make a logical, preventative strike and take the keys to the ninth inning away from John Axford before he derails this Brewers season.
A patient, rational observer might make the case that you don’t change closers three games into the season and that such a move would reek of desperation. I would argue that the reason to make the move is that we’re only three games into the season. If on May 1, the Brewers are three games below .500 and Axford has blown three saves, then the damage might be irreversible as far as the postseason is concerned. The National League has never been so stacked at the top. Each division boasts two teams with legitimate World Series aspirations, and the Brewers are not in that mix. What are they, if not desperate for every possible win on the table?
I will admit that this is the very definition of confirmation bias. My biggest fear going into this season was the back end of the bullpen. I was one of two writers on the site to pick Axford for fewer than 30 saves this season, because I thought we might see something similar to last season, where he led the team in saves, but a couple pitchers got in on the action because of Axford’s struggles. Had I known he would get this crushed, this early, I would have put that number below 20. He looked terrible for Team Canada in the World Baseball Classic, and he led the majors in blown saves last season. Reasons for optimism about his 2013 season were far and few between. But confirmation bias does not equal irrational thought. It can lead to putting far too much value on the first week of the season than any other stretch of six or seven games, but in this case, I think there are more reasons to demote Axford than to ride this thing out.
Nicholas Zettel brought up an excellent point Thursday about pitching with a one-run deficit late in a game. This is especially noteworthy with regards to Axford because I have heard people, and even players, make the case that pitching in a non-save situation is different from pitching in a save situation. Basically they are blaming the poor showing in a spot where a save wasn’t a possibility on the fact that the pitcher was used in a situation that they are not comfortable in. Pitchers will sometimes say that you can’t match the adrenaline of pitching for the final three outs. Whether there is merit to this argument in certain cases is close to irrelevant. I want my best relief pitcher to be comfortable pitching in rain or sunshine; at home or in hostile territory. I want the anchor in the bullpen to bring the same pitches and execution to the mound when the team is up three in the bottom of the ninth inning and when it’s a high leverage situation and the team is down one run. Hell, if anything, there should be more adrenaline in a situation like Wednesday night’s game than in a situation where the Brewers are up three against the Pirates. So anyone who wants to blame the manager for bringing in Axford in to a non-save situation is basically saying that Axford is too weak mentally to pitch the same under slightly different circumstances, in which case, he shouldn’t have been the closer to start the season.
So why has Axford been so bad over the past 13 months? Neither his ERA nor xFIP in 2010 or 2011 was ever higher than 2.85, yet he posted a 4.67 ERA in 2012 and is on pace to be even worse in 2013. The problem doesn’t seem to be velocity. According to Brooks Baseball, his fastball averaged 96.9 mph in 2012 and 96.3 in 2011. It also doesn’t seem to be pitch usage, as he threw the fourseam 71 percent of the time and the curve 18 percent of the time in 2012 while throwing the fastball on 69 percent of his pitches and the curve on 21 percent in 2011. His usage of pitches in certain counts also sees little variance from year-to-year. That leaves location, and just by looking at his 5.06 BB/9 rate and 1.3 HR/9 rate in 2012, we get confirmation. In 2010 Axford allowed just 0.16 HR/9 and in 2011 he issued only 3.05 BB/9.
Another issue I’ve noticed on occasion, but have failed to properly document, is that Axford’s approach to getting weaker hitters out can often be strange and it sets him up for failure against the bats he really needs to worry about. For instance, on Opening Day, Axford faces Eric Young Jr. with one out in the top of the ninth with the Brewers leading 4-3. Contrary to what Bill Schroeder may think about Young’s abilities, EY is not good with the bat. In 601 career big-league at-bats heading into this season, Young had five home runs, and for a guy with his speed, his six triples over that span are even more incriminating. So in Monday’s situation, Axford or Jonathan Lucroy or both, need to be aware that Young will not hurt them. Throw him three fastballs and get to Dexter Fowler. Instead, Axford gets ahead easily with the fastball, and tries to get cute with off-speed stuff, but he can’t locate, and eventually has to go back to the fastball to get the K. Now Fowler knows Axford’s having a hard time locating the breaking ball, so he sits dead red and Axford gives him exactly what he’s looking for. Tie ball game.
His replacement is pretty obvious. Jim Henderson (aka Jimmy Henderson, Big Jim, Gentleman Jim… see he’s even got better nicknames than the “Ax Man”) has been dealing ever since he got promoted in 2012. He had a 13.2 K/9 rate in 30.2 innings last season to go with a 2.73 xFIP. In fact, his BB/9 rate (3.82) and HR/9 rate (0.29) were similar to what we saw out of Axford in his prime, which is basically relief pitching in a nutshell. The peak is usually a pretty small window. The nature of the job requires the pitcher to give max effort on every pitch, and while you might see a relief pitcher remain solid over a long stretch, you’ll rarely see a relief pitcher remain dominant over a long stretch. That’s why everyone fawns over Mariano Rivera. Closers aren’t supposed to last that long. Nobody should be expecting Jim Johnson, Fernando Rodney or Joel Hanrahan to pitch at the All-Star levels they reached last year for a long period of time, just like Brewers fans shouldn’t see it as a foregone conclusion that Axford will ever return to the pitcher he was at his peak. But when Axford had it, he really had it. I miss those days, but it’s time to move on.