On April 9th, John Axford surrendered three runs in 0.2 innings against the Chicago Cubs. He ultimately took the loss. His ERA ballooned to 24.30. And the vast majority of the Brewers fanbase were done with the team’s former closer.
Some talked about simply severing ties with Axford, while others advocated a trip to the minors to figure out his mechanical issues and to regain his confidence. Others lobbied for the organization to essentially hide Axford and pitch him in lower-leverage situations in hopes that he could rediscover his dominant form.
The club ultimately removed Axford from the ninth inning and has since allowed him to pitch through his issues in some high-leverage spots, but mostly in low-leverage situations. With that said, though, he’s been out of the spotlight for the better part of two months and has very quietly been dominant for the Milwaukee Brewers. The 30-year-old righty has earned nine holds and two wins since his implosion on April 9.
Consider this: since that April 9th debacle, he’s posted filthy statistics.
His overall 4.94 ERA is unbelievably misleading, at least when trying to evaluate his future expected performance. He’s given up just six earned runs in the last two months, and three of those came on May 1st against the Pittsburgh Pirates. The stretch has included 23 scoreless outings and only two home runs — something that plagued him in his first few appearances.
While it’s tempting to argue Axford has come back to earth and simply wasn’t as bad as he pitched earlier this year, it’s more complex than that. He’s certainly not a 24.00+ ERA pitcher. Anyone who has watched the right-hander throw over the past few years knows that. But he needed to change his approach on the mound, and he’s become a very different pitcher.
The Ontario, Canada native now leans heavily on his breaking pitches. He’s only throwing his fastball 58.6% of the time, which is by far the lowest mark of his career. His previous low was 65.0% in 2010. Axford compiled a 2.48 ERA (2.13 FIP) with 24 saves that year.
More importantly, though, it should be emphasized that Axford is now truly featuring two breaking pitches for the first time since 2010. His slider had become increasingly marginalized in his repertoire the last couple season — and he did not throw a single slider in his first few appearances. I talked about John Axford and his slider back in early April. The first slider he threw came against the Chicago Cubs on April 9.
His pitch usage has changed drastically from last year.
The slider and curveball are utilized much more often, and they’re a huge reason Axford has turned his season around and has once again become a integral piece of the bullpen.
Some have pointed toward improved command on the mound. That’s technically not true. He has essentially thrown the same percentage of pitches in the strike zone this season (43.7%) as he did last season (43.1%) — but once again, it’s misleading because he’s throwing more offspeed pitches. He’s throwing more sliders and curveballs in the zone than he has in previous seasons, which is helping him keep opposing hitters off-balance and allowing him to avoid fastball-only counts.
**Side note: Axford has given up exactly zero extra-base hits on his slider this season. He’s thrown it 80 times and has given up five singles. That’s it.**
So, we know John Axford has been tremendous for the better part of the last two months, but what does that mean for his role in the bullpen and his future with the Brewers?
The Brewers’ bullpen is currently locked-down in the eighth and ninth innings. Francisco Rodriguez and Jim Henderson will continue to pitch at the back-end of the bullpen, but it appears Axford is starting to see higher-leverage innings. He’s earned a hold in two of his last five appearances, as well as a win in extra innings on June 4th against the Athletics.
He will likely settle into an seventh-inning role — or perhaps a role as a bullpen ace who pitches in the highest-leverage situation during the fifth, sixth or seventh innings. The right-hander has earned more important innings and no longer needs to pitch in meaningless games.
And unless the Brewers put together a unbelievable stretch of baseball, in which they can effectively rise from the dead and rejoin the National League Wild Card race, he could be a prime trade candidate this summer. Plenty of teams will be searching for relief pitching, and guys with closing experience can generate high demand — especially if they have control years remaining.
The most interesting scenario, however, would be if the Brewers trade away Francisco Rodriguez or Jim Henderson (or both). That could vacate the closer’s role, and the organization could reinstate Axford as closer to rebuild his trade value for the upcoming offseason. Of course, such scenarios work better in video games than in real life, but it would certainly be fascinating to see Axford re-establish himself as one of the better closers in the National League in the second half.
What a storyline that would be, considering his first couple weeks to the season. He would move from whipping boy to bullpen stalwart. And, in some ways, that would fit his career arc, considering his long, arduous journey to the big leagues. He deserves praise at this point in his career. He’s slightly reinvented himself on the mound, but most of all, he’s shrugged off ineffectiveness, disappointment and criticism to become one of the most dominating relievers in the Brewers’ bullpen once more.