The Brewers bullpen has been incredibly disappointing this season by any measure. The biggest bright spot, both in terms of the present and the future, has definitely been John Axford. Axford has pitched in five games so far and six innings, allowing two runs and walking four batters while striking out a remarkable ten batters. He has a 3.00 ERA so far, and an even more impressive 1.79 FIP and 2.93 xFIP. After his save on Sunday, and given the struggles of Trevor Hoffman so far this season, Brewers fans are now wondering about Axford’s future in the bullpen, potentially as the team’s closer.
Axford has shown four pitches so far this year: a fastball, a curveball, a slider, and a cutter in order of usage (it’s possible that the cutters are simply mislabeled fastballs, which is what the data FanGraphs uses indicates). According to FanGraphs’ pitch type values, the fastball, curveball, and slider are all well above average.
The key to Axford’s success has been his ability to strike batters out. His 15 K/9 is easily the highest on the Brewers staff. In the minors, Axford was striking out 12.5 batters per nine innings this season and 11.5 in 2009. The rate of 15 K/9 is certainly not sustainable, but Axford should continue to be a high strikeout pitcher. He’s drawn a ridiculous 15% swinging strike rate so far this year – just below Mark DiFelice’s 16.1% rate from 2009 and nearly equal to Joe Nathan’s 15.1% rate. Those two pitchers posted K/9s of 8.36 and 11.67 respectively. Those two probably form the boundaries for Axford’s strikeout rate – he almost certainly won’t draw as much contact as DiFelice’s cutter, and he almost certainly won’t be as good as Joe Nathan.
The main reason that Axford has been so successful is his fastball. Whereas the average major league fastball only induces whiffs on 6.03% of pitches, Axford’s 95+ heater has drawn whiffs on 22.4% of swings. That’s nearly four times the league average, is much of the basis for Axford’s hot start. It will remain to be see if that level is sustainable, but there is one thing we do know – hard throwers are typically successful in the major leagues.
* – Starting pitcher, FIP lowered a full run to align with relievers
** – No projection available, league average (4.20) used.
We certainly see a variety of guys here, but most of them are at the least marginally useful as relievers, simply because they can generate strikeouts with these fastballs. We see Axford is one of the 31 players to pitch so far in 2010 to have an average fastball velocity over 95. He actually has one of the highest projected FIPs over the rest of the season, but that’s mainly because of how much time he spent in the low minors in 2009. It’s clear that he’s a different pitcher than he was then – whether it’s location or velocity, I can’t say, but it’s important to remember that he didn’t even make his professional debut until age 24. Pitchers with a 3.97 FIP as relievers are roughly a third to a half a win above replacement, depending on their workloads. Given how many pitchers with utterly no control (Simon, Morales, Rodriguez, etc.) are on this list, there is a good chance that Axford can perform above this mark.
The question on everybody’s mind is whether or not Axford can become a great closer. I’m inclined to say no, and here is why.
Every single one of his pitches breaks in towards left handed batters. One of the keys to being a closer, as we saw in his appearance against the Twins, is the ability to get hitters of both hands out. Right now, Axford doesn’t have a pitch that can be used as an out pitch against lefties, and he simply gives up too many walks right now to be able to get around that weakness.
That said, I do believe Axford can be an important piece in the Brewers bullpen for the long term. His fastball is absolutely nasty and he has the secondary stuff to back it up, especially against right handed batters. If he can limit his walks, it’s possible that he could develop into the long-term closer that the Brewers are waiting for, but I think John Axford as a setup man is a more realistic projection.