According to ESPN radio personality Colin Cowherd, baseball will always be a dominant sport in the cities of the Northeast – New York, Boston, Philadelphia. Each city not only has a long baseball tradition but also an extremely vocal sports media and fan base. If any of those organizations go off the rails, sportswriters will attack them in ink and fans will not only vocalize their displeasure but also stop attending games. In Cowherd’s opinion, the fan base’s passion is key to putting winning teams on the field, as it motivates the team owners to live up to expectations. Cities with less of a baseball tradition, and/or a more unengaged fan base, don’t exert the same pressure on owners to put a winning team on the field (cough, cough, Miami). I’ve always wondered where Milwaukee and its fans fit on that scale. Well, judging from the fan and Twitter reaction to John Axford’s eighth inning performance against the Pirates, on Wednesday, it’s quite obvious that the Brewers fan base is passionate and not afraid to be vocal.
After religiously watching the Brewers play, both at home and on the road, over the last few years, I was already convinced there was a strong and excited fan base in Milwaukee. My unscientific eye test led me to believe that Brewers fans streamed into Miller Park at a higher than average rate, and my ears knew that Brewers fans weren’t afraid to express disappointment or boo when bummed by the team’s performance. So I checked the numbers to see if my eyes were lying or not. Not surprisingly, compared to the other 29 MLB teams, Milwaukee has the lowest “Metropolitan Statistical Area” population at 1,555,908. About half a million fewer people live around Milwaukee than the second smallest MLB market – Kansas City with a MSA population of 2,035,334. Despite the fact that Milwaukee has the least amount of people, by far, to try to get to the ballpark, between the 2010-2012 seasons, Miller Park has the tenth-highest attendance in all of baseball — 8,679,289.
So my eyes weren’t lying. The passion for Brewers baseball is there. I believe Mark Attanasio, who by all accounts seems like a pretty good businessman, has also seen that passion and has been willing to more than double the Brewers payroll because of it. As fans, we let Mark Attanasio know how we feel about the team by whether we show up to games and buy Brewers merchandise or not. It’s a subtle, long-term relationship that needs to be nurtured by both sides or it falls apart. How fans express their passion to Brewers players happens in a much more direct way.
I bring all this up because I watched Wednesday’s game against the Pirates. I know Fox Sports Wisconsin didn’t broadcast the game, which left many Brewer fans to listen to Joe Block and Ueck’s call or watch a MLB Gameday stream of the action online. Living in Los Angeles, the only way I can watch the Brewers is through my MLB.TV app. With the FS-Wisconsin feed unavailable, I was forced to watch the entire game on the Pittsburgh Pirates’ feed, which gave me a whole new appreciation for the solid call Brian Anderson and Rock bring us most nights. So when the Brewers’ lead evaporated in the eighth inning, it was harder to watch than normal, but it also helped put some perspective on what happened. As Axford was pulled from the game after 0.2 IP, 4 H, 3 ER, 1 HR, 1 K to a chorus of boos, the Pirates’ broadcasters weren’t talking about Axford’s poor performance but, instead, the Pirates’ good luck.
To start the season, Axford struggled mightily. His first four appearances resulted in 3.1 IP and 9 ER for a 24.30 ERA. After some soul-searching, and mechanical adjustments, Axford’s next eight appearances resulted in 7.1 IP and 1 ER for a 1.23 ERA. Then came Wednesday’s eighth inning appearance – 0.2 IP, 4 H, 3 ER, 1 HR, 1 K. After which, Twitter exploded with anti-Axford comments and fans at Miller Park booed as Axford walked off the field. But I have to say, Axford didn’t pitch poorly on Wednesday and he most definitely didn’t deserve the fan reaction that he got. Simply, Axford’s pitching process was good but the results weren’t.
On MLB NOW, Brian Kenny, MLB Network’s resident stat-head and sabermatrician, repeatedly preaches something he claimed to have learned from legendary Orioles coach Earl Weaver – don’t confuse bad results for a bad process. Regarding the eighth inning on Wednesday, Axford made good pitches but bad luck, and a bit of even better hitting, resulted in his rough outing.
Axford started the top of eighth by taking LHB Travis Snider 0-2. His third pitch was a 97 MPH fastball inside, off the plate.
Snider swung to save his life and shattered his bat. The ball softly made its way to the left side of the infield, right to where a shortstop would play – except the Brewers had Segura shifted up the middle. The ball was too far to Betancourt’s left and, by the time Segura got to the soft roller, there was no play at first. Good pitch by Axford but an unlucky result.
Next Axford faced Starling Marte. After taking the count 1-1, Axford gave Marte a 95 MPH fastball about mid-shin.
Marte, somehow, got the barrel to the ball and tied the game with a long home run to left center. This wasn’t a center-cut, belt-high fastball that Axford threw. He kept it down — way, way down — and Marte still got to it. I’d rather have Axford miss with his fastball down there, instead of up, any day of the week. It was a good pitch but an even better piece of hitting by Marte.
After a bit of bad luck, and an excellent piece of hitting, the Boo Birds cooed through out Miller Park. Rattled, Axford left up a pitch to Jose Tabata, who slapped it into right field. It was the only bad pitch Axford made that the Pirates jumped on. Next was Andrew McCutchen, who struck out on four pitches, and Garrett Jones, who popped out on the second pitch.
Brandon Inge followed and fell behind 1-2. So Axford threw him a slider about six inches off the plate.
Inge did his best Ryan Braun impression, somehow got the bat on it, and floated it to right field. The ball landed perfectly between Rickie and Aoki. As Rickie went to corral the ball, he literally kicked it further down the line – which guaranteed the go-ahead would score and even allowed Inge to advance to third. Again, another good pitch by Axford with an extremely unlucky result.
But everyone knows that’s how this game goes. Sometimes the ball doesn’t bounce your way. Sometimes you can make a good pitch and still get beat. That’s why Brian Kenny preaches that you need to separate a player’s process for his results to understand his true value. In Axford’s case, his process was good. He worked ahead in the count then threw pitches outside the zone to get Pirate batters to chase. It just so happened that, on Wednesday, Pirate batters not only chased those pitches but, through a bit of luck and some good hitting, successfully put those pitches in play.
It’s never fun to watch a lead slip away no matter the circumstances. But seeing the reaction to Axford’s inning got me thinking that, when Axford assumed the closer’s role in the wake of Trevor Hoffman’s decline, he set himself up for unrealistic expectations. After blowing his first two save chances in 2011, Axford didn’t blow another save for the rest of the season. His consecutive saves streak continued into the 2012 season and finally ended at 49 games – the fourth longest streak in league history. After a start like that, where was there to go but down?
And he did. Axford struggled through the middle part of 2012, and to start this season, much to the dismay of a passionate fan base that knew he had the potential to be an elite closer. We need to realize that Axford is not Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde. He’s neither as good as he started or as bad as he was in the middle of the 2012 season. He’s a relief pitcher that, when right, can paint the black of the plate at 96 MPH. And, even though, his process was right on Wednesday, the baseball Gods still didn’t come down on his side. That’s not something to boo or blast him about, even if that’s exactly what the passionate fan inside all of us wants to do. Instead, we need to take a deep breath and see if the process was bad or just the results. Earlier this season, Axford’s process was wrong, fans responded appropriately, and he lost his closer role. On Wednesday, Axford only suffered from bad results, many of which were far out of his control.
Let’s be honest, Axford will probably never save close to 50-consecutive games again. That was a once in a career experience. So why do we still expect him to be perfect every time he takes the hill? Once we accept Axford for who he is, and remove our expectations from either end of the spectrum, his true value to the team can finally be seen. And, maybe, a few of the Boo Birds will stay in hibernation next time he has a rough outing.