With the game tied at six-apiece in the top of the tenth inning, John Axford and the Brewers appeared to be playing with fire. The 37,733 fans in attendance collectively held their breaths as Paul Goldschmidt and Jason Kubel jumped on Axford fastballs and narrowly missed home runs, as both saw their deep drives run out of steam at the base of the outfield wall. Axford then recovered to strikeout Eric Chavez and successfully navigated his first 1-2-3 inning of the 2013 campaign, even if it was nerve-wracking.
The Brewers were unable to plate a run in the bottom of the tenth inning, though, and Ron Roenicke once again turned to the right-hander to throw up another zero on the board.
The top of the eleventh inning wasn’t as kind as the previous frame. Axford again saw Diamondbacks’ hitters square up the baseball yet again, culminating in a two-run home run by pinch-hitter Eric Hinske to give the Diamondbacks a two-run lead. A lead they wouldn’t relinquish in the bottom of the eleventh inning, despite the best efforts of failed-closer Heath Bell.
Much of the focus eventually shifted to the pinch-hitting fiasco in the eleventh, as Ron Roenicke was forced to choose Kyle Lohse to pinch hit with runners on the corners and two outs in a one-run game. But the real conundrum lies with John Axford.
This isn’t necessarily an article focused on what the Brewers should do about the ninth inning. Instead, this is about what happened to John Axford.
Two years ago, Axford was one of the top closers in the game, compiling a ridiculous 1.95 ERA (2.41 FIP) with 46 saves. He effectively shortened the game for the Brewers. Opposing teams had little-to-no chance to score in the ninth inning with Axford on the mound, putting more pressure on them to amass runs earlier in the ballgame. That lockdown ninth inning is no longer present for the Brewers. If anything, it’s the opposite.
Axford struggled to a 4.67 ERA (4.06 FIP) last year and has absolutely imploded this season. He’s surrendered four home runs in only 2.2 innings and has given up runs in each game he’s pitched. The dreadful performance has caused many fans to call for Axford to be removed from the closer’s role — something that seemed unthinkable only two seasons ago. Hell, there was even very public talk about a potential contract extension for Axford last spring.
So, what happened? What changed?
The velocity is down to begin the season, but there’s reason to believe that’s not the main issue for Axford: (1) he was sitting 94-96 mph with the fastball on Sunday afternoon, and (2) the troubles started last season, when he was throwing harder than ever.
Many have pointed to the walks, and sure, that’s a huge issue. Axford has regularly fallen behind in counts and walked a career-high 5.06 per nine innings last season. But, at the same time, he’s never had plus-command of his pitches. He’s always been a bit wild. And he’s always been able to fight back and overpower hitters on pure stuff.
Why has that disappeared?
As is often the case, the issue appears to be mechanical — and his release point, in particular. Colorado Rockies’ beat writer Troy Renck was in Milwaukee for the opening series between the Rockies and the Brewers, and he tweeted an interesting tidbit of information from an anonymous scout on Thursday:
Scout on Axford: Hitters seeing release point so well almost as though he’s tipping pitches. — Troy Renck (@TroyRenck) April 4, 2013
If opposing hitters are seeing Axford’s release point as well as the previous tweet suggests, it’s not surprising the right-hander has struggled so much in recent outings. His fastball has plus-velocity, but it’s rather straight and almost always up in the zone. If big-league hitters can key-in on his fastball, they’ll regularly punish it.
Below, I’ve overlaid a graphic of his release point from Sunday afternoon’s game on a graphic of his release point from his brilliant 2011 season.
It’s abundantly clear his release point has changed. It’s more over-the-top — which is not necessarily bad. It’s just different. And something is different from 2011. This is just more evidence to support the anonymous scout quoted above. His release point has changed, and opposing hitters are seeing the ball exceedingly well.
A more over-the-top delivery is probably also why Axford has largely abandoned his slider. A slider comes more naturally to pitchers who throw from a lower arm-slot. He threw it 16.2% of the time in 2010, but it’s frequency has waned as his big-league career has progressed. And if Axford has gotten more over-the-top the past few seasons, it would make sense that his slider would correspondingly disappear.
Again, this is not to say Axford should lower his arm slot and all of his struggles will magically dissolve. It’s painfully obvious the John Axford from the past two seasons — especially this past week — isn’t the same as the one who experienced such significant success in 2010 and 2011, and his change in release point is just more evidence of that fact.
I’m not sure what needs to change. If I could answer that question, I’d be a wealthy man working for a Major League Baseball organization, but the Ax-man is no longer a dominating reliever at the back-end of the Brewers’ bullpen. The Brewers need to straighten him out if they want to avoid an increasing number of headaches over the next couple months. From the information currently available, though, analyzing his release point should probably be number one on their list.