How Good Is John Axford? | Disciples of Uecker

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How Good Is John Axford?

By on March 1, 2012

With the news that closer John Axford has been discussing a contract extension with the Brewers, I began perusing video and statistics on Axford in hopes of painting a better picture of just how good Axford has been over the past couple of seasons. He has obviously been a revelation for the organization, but just how good the Ax-Man has been sincerely shocked me.

In just two seasons, John Axford has already become one of the best relief pitchers in Brewers history.

The Brewers have been in Milwaukee for the past 43 seasons, and John Axford already owns the fifth spot on the all-time saves leader list behind Dan Plesac (133), Rollie Fingers (97), Mike Fetters (79), and Bob Wickman (79). That’s not only incredible due to the short span of time in which it has been accomplished, but also due to the sheer unlikelihood of Axford making any kind of impact whatsoever in the big leagues. After all, the Yankees released him following the 2007 season. Just three years ago, he sold cell phones and tended bar during the offseason to supplement his minor league income. He is very much the Everyman character that endears itself so quickly to a fan base.

Asserting that Axford is one of the best relief pitchers to ever wear a Milwaukee Brewers uniform is not simply based upon the save statistic, though. It goes much deeper than that.

The 28-year-old right-hander simply possesses a level of pure stuff that has rarely been seen in Milwaukee. His fastball/curveball combination ranks amongst the best in the entire league because he can throw both pitches for strikes. It becomes almost unfair for opposing hitters when he reaches back for a 95-98 MPH fastball (he gained almost a mile per hour on average on his fastball this year) up in the zone and follows it up with a true hammer on the outside corner. What is the hitter supposed to do, other than buckle his knees and stare at the pitch crossing the strike zone?

That nasty repertoire on the mound has led to strikeout rates never before seen in the organization. Below are the all-time best strikeout rates of any Brewers player who has thrown at least 100 innings with the team:

Player K/9
John Axford 11.05
Chad Fox 10.60
Zack Greinke 10.54
Derrick Turnbow 10.09
Julio Machado 9.74

Yes, you read that correctly. John Axford owns the best strikeout rate in the history of the Brewers organization for any pitcher who has thrown at least 100 innings. While it’s not surprising that more modern pitchers populate the majority of the list — as strikeout rates have greatly increased over the years — the fact that Axford is #1 on the list makes him stand out amongst the crowd.

It gets even better.

The sabermetrics movement popularized the FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) statistic, which attempts to ascertain a pitcher’s “true” talent. More specifically, it seeks to remove the noise surrounding the pitcher and focus in on what the guy on the mound can control. Utilizing this statistic, we discover that John Axford once again finds himself in historic company within the organization.

Player FIP
John Axford 2.33
CC Sabathia 2.44
Zack Greinke 2.98
Ken Sanders 3.02
Bob Locker 3.04

Throughout the history of the organization, no pitcher has thrown at least 100 innings in his Brewers’ career and compiled a lower FIP. The right-hander strikes out a ton of batters, has learned to limit his walks, and suppresses home runs (and also happens to have the lowest home run rate — 0.32 HR/9 — of any Brewers reliever in history with at least 100 career innings). Not bad for a guy who went undrafted out of Notre Dame in ’06.

Axford exploded onto the scene during the 2010 season. He quickly seized the closer role and entrenched himself as a true shutdown reliever. In the process, the right-hander has quietly begun crafting one of the best relief careers in Milwaukee Brewers’ history.

However, relievers are naturally volatile creatures. Their placement in the bullpen rather than the starting rotation is generally born out of some sort of deficiency — either lack of stuff, lack of endurance, or lack of a third pitch — in the first place, so it remains difficult to guarantee annual success at this elite level for the Ax-Man in the upcoming seasons. That’s why pitchers who sustain prolonged success, such as Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman, continue to be so unique and special. Even Jonathan Papelbon, who signed a huge deal this winter, posted a mediocre 3.90 ERA in 2010. Axford could simply disappear from the big leagues just as unexpectedly and as quickly as he appeared. Baseball is fickle like that. The numbers suggest, though, that John Axford is on his way to eventually becoming the best reliever in Brewers’ organization history.

After all, the man with the ‘stache is already in the discussion.

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