Now that Trevor Hoffman has finally achieved 600 saves, the transition into the John Axford era as closer should finally be complete. It’s possible that Hoffman could still see an appearance here and there, but as one or two more saves down the line probably won’t be enough to stave off Mariano Rivera (555 saves, and if a 1.07 ERA is any indication, still going strong) for the all-time saves record, I wouldn’t be surprised if the organization and Hoffman are both content to finish his career at 600 saves, with Hoffman still seeing work as a setup guy or extra-inning pitcher.
That means that the save situations should be all John Axford from here on out. His first 50 innings have undoubtedly been fantastic – a 2.34 ERA supported by fantastic peripherals: 11 strikeouts per nine innings, four walks per nine, and only one home run the entire season, good for a 2.38 FIP. It’s hard to imagine Axford preventing home runs like that forever, but relievers can show a consistent ability to suppress HR/FB rates, meaning that something between that 2.38 FIP and his 3.03 xFIP is a reasonable estimation of his ability, assuming the (relative) control that he’s shown this year is real.
That’s a pretty big assumption, though. The fact that Axford has been able to limit his walks to four per nine innings for 50 whole MLB innings is important, but he’s only faced 205 batters this season, and the dangers of small samples for relievers should be well known to Brewers fans. The reason to be concerned is the same reason that the Yankees allowed the Brewers to claim him in the first place: he walked the world in the minor leagues.
Those are some pretty putrid walk totals which led to some pretty putrid FIPs. Axford’s control will be the aspect of his game to watch as his career continues.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that we just throw out the 50 innings we have so far. We should expect some regression, but not necessarily up to the 6-7 BB/9 rates that Axford posted in the minors. Axford has struggled with walks in the last couple of months, but that actually shows why maybe we shouldn’t be too worried about it – Axford can handle walks because of his ability to induce the ground ball. Despite a 6.08 BB/9 in August, Axford still had a 2.86 FIP because he held opponents homerless, mainly thanks to a 50%+ ground ball rate, meaning that he can still be productive even if he’s a little wild.
Realistically, John Axford has been the closer since June, and there’s no denying that he’s been fantastic. Now, with Hoffman’s quest for 600 over, the the real story in the bullpen is to see if Axford can maintain this excellent story over his next 50 innings and beyond. If he can even maintain a little piece of the control that has allowed him success this season, he should be able to produce in the closer’s role.