John Axford and the Problem With Relievers | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

We'd like to go to the Playoffs, that would be cool.

John Axford has blown 3 of his last 5 opportunities to save a game and would have probably blown another right before that streak started had it not been for Jose Veras’ successful high wire act against the Padres. As a team, the Brewers have lost in three of Axford’s last six appearances, despite the fact that he was given leads in each of those games.  Combine that run with a generally under-achieving Brewers’ squad and the fact that they have been losing to some beatable opponents, and the “closer” panic meter is buried pretty deeply into the red right now.

The question is, should it be? Consider the following pitching performances:

Pitcher A: 3.2 innings, 7 hits, 6 runs, 5 walks, 3 strikeouts, 4 home runs

Pitcher B: 3.2 innings, 9 hits, 8 runs, 1 walk, 5 strikeouts, 0 home runs

Pitcher C: 2 innings, 8 hits, 8 runs, 2 walks, 3 strikeouts, 0 home runs

Pitcher D: 2.1 innings, 10 hits, 7 runs, 3 walks, 3 strikeouts, 1 home run

Pitcher E: 5 innings, 7 hits, 9 runs, 5 walks, 6 strikeouts, 2 home runs

If some of those lines look familiar, well, they should. A and C were Yovani Gallardo‘s two appearances this year against the Cardinals. B and D were both Zack Greinke starts, the first his stinker against the Cubs and the other his odd blowup in Arizona. As you probably suspect, E is Axford’s last 6 appearances. It’s striking how similar they all are to each other, with the only major difference being just how damaging they were to the team.

When a starter has a really bad day, as all starters will do a few times a year, the result can only be one loss.  When a closer struggles, though, they can start “costing” their team large numbers of games rather quickly, as is the case here. Axford wasn’t really objectively worse in his last 6 than the Brewers’ co-aces were in their clunkers, he just had the misfortune to spread out his struggles over multiple outings.

Closers just aren’t given the margin for error that starters are. If a starter gives up a run or two in the third inning, it’s most often no big deal. The offense has time to undo the damage and the game is far from decided one way or another. Closers often don’t get that luxury, holding 1-3 run leads with the game on the line and all eyes on them. When they fail, it’s a big deal. When they fail a few times in quick succession, things can elevate to full blown panic rather quickly.

A lot of damage can be done in a short time. It may be hard to remember, but before these last 6 outings started, Axford had a season ERA was 3.22. That’s hardly the dominating 1.95 he posted in 2011, but it’s a far cry from the ghastly 5.60 mark that is going to be cited time and again as reason to remove him from the save specialist role. Once they have struggled, relievers generally have a to log a lot of consistently good performances for quite a while before their statistics recover. Starters can dig out of a one game hole with a good outing or two. A reliever faced with a similar poor performance, albeit one that takes place over a handful of games,  will probably need a couple of months to recover, and that’s if nothing else goes too wrong.

This all might be part of why MLB teams seem to have such a hard time finding closers who can do the job from year to year. They have to be really good pitchers to minimize the damage when they do struggle. They must also be able to bounce back quickly and with the sort of authority that fans and even most managers want to see before they’re willing to believe the man can continue to pitch in those 9th inning situations. It seems fair to ask if it’s not a lack of good closers that has teams scrambling all the time to find that feared save specialist, but rather if it’s simply unfair to expect most relievers to be as good as the demands commonly placed on “closers.”

At the end of the day, it’s impossible to look into the future and know exactly what the it holds for a player. This might be a blip on the screen for John Axford or it might be a sign of some deeper trouble that is going to limit his effectiveness down the road as well. The main point, though, is the occasional run of bad outings even from the best reliever should be expected. After all, even the best starters have “blowup” starts from time to time. It’s really on all of us that we don’t give relievers the same leeway.

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Tell us what do you think.

  1. Andrew says: June 20, 2012

    I think we put more pressure on a “closer” because this is a highly specialized position.
    These guys are only on the cuff for 1 inning, unlike a starter who often goes at least 6.
    The pressure we give a “closer” is well deserved. If a “closer” pitched 5 innings, then maybe we give them more leeway. But as it stands, closer’s have one inning to manage and the pressure COMES with the job. I have no sympathy for them nor do they warrant the same cushion a starter would receive. They are 2 completely different jobs. Additionally, closer’s are often given a LEAD, something a started DOES NOT HAVE at the start of the game. Their job is to maintain the lead and win 1 inning. Comparing a starter job to a closer job is comparing apples to oranges.
    A starter has to be good for 5-8 innings and a closer ONLY 1-2.
    So in the end, why should a closer get the same leeway? It’s not even CLOSE to being the same job.

    • Ryan Topp says: June 20, 2012

      Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment.

      First off, you make a good point about closers not being expected to get through a lineup multiple times as starters are. Part of the reason they’re closers and not starters in the first place is that, more often than not, they failed to make it as starters, quite likely because they couldn’t do just that. Of course, starters are also on a fixed schedule with ample rest in between outings. They know when they’re going to pitch, and can prep days in advance for it, so they have some pretty big advantages that closers don’t have.

      I guess my main point here isn’t that you should have sympathy for closers, but rather that this is all part of why MLB goes through so many closers all the time. Teams all seem to be chasing Dennis Eckersley’s 1988 season in some way, thinking “that’s how a closer is SUPPOSED to pitch, because all we’re asking them to do is get 3 outs without giving up runs! How hard is that?”

      I just think that any reasonable expectations for high leverage relief pitchers should include room for runs like this. Just about everyone, other than *maybe* Mariano Rivera (though I haven’t even checked that, he’s probably had similar runs himself) goes through something like this if they close for a few years. The good pitchers bounce back and find ways to get outs again. We’ll just have to wait and see if that’s Axford or not.

  2. Andrew says: June 20, 2012

    Thanks for the response. Enlightening stuff there.
    Personally, I did not realize that a closing pitcher once started out on the quest to become a starting pitcher. I always assumed these were specialty guys, guys that could really bring the heat but could only keep that heat up for a limited amount of time. I tend to think of closers as “sprinters” while I view starters as your marathon runners. Am I wrong in that?
    I look at a guy like Axford who can throw a good 96 mph fast ball but I doubt he could keep that up for more than a few innings??
    I agree that we put a LOT of pressure on these guys and I’m realistic enough to believe that even the best closers need some wiggle room and WILL give up some runs from time to time. On the same token, these guys make TONS of money just to pitch for ONE inning and so the expectations are naturally high. When a closer can make as much as or even more than a starter, I think most teams expect to get their money’s worth.
    As far as the MLB going through tons of closers, it seems really hard for a guy to maintain his success from the previous year as all it takes is one good year to be suddenly on everyone’s radar.
    I can see how that adds pressure but that’s also part of playing in the majors. But I think you said it best that the good pitchers will always find a way to get over the hurdles.
    I guess it’s really no different than a guy like Rickie Weeks who had an exellent year in 2011 but has failed to duplicate that success. Success like that is often difficult to repeat and I just hope that Axford can find a way to not be a one year wonder and live up to his expectations.
    The expectations may be high but I think we can both agree that the good pitchers THRIVE on rising to the occasion.

    • Ryan Topp says: June 20, 2012

      Thanks for the second response. Going kind of point by point here:

      Every closer has their own story. Unless they were a closer in college, though, teams generally will try and keep guys with good arms in the rotation as long as possible on the way up. Some don’t have bodies to hold up to 200 IP a year, some don’t have the third or fourth pitch to keep hitters off their bread and butter, some don’t have the command to do more than let it loose for an inning at a time. Still, most were at one point starting pitching prospects.

      As for Axford specifically, he probably would have to tone down the FB a bit if he were to start, but I think the bigger issue that pushed him to the pen was the lack of useful changeup to get hitters the second and time through. Also, his breaking pitch(s) command can be pretty iffy.

      As for the “making tons of money” thing, that isn’t really true in Axford’s case. He’s making $525,000 this year. In the real world, that’s lots. In baseball, it’s really not a lot at all. He’ll start making more (a lot more if he rebounds) next year as he gets into arbitration.

      Finally, about Weeks, because I just can’t let it go, he also had an outstanding season in 2010 and was off to a great start in 2009 before getting hurt. More than just a one year wonder.

  3. Jeff says: June 20, 2012

    Do you think it would work for a team like the Brewers, who have two legit closers, to go more the Jeff Reardon route? Let them pitch the 8-9 innings? It would let them feel out a guy for the night. I mean, if Rodriguez is locating well in the 8th, and generally looks good, why not let him have the 9th? He’s still not going to turn over the lineup. Basically go to a 2 inning closing situation. I seem to remember Reardon and Eck doing exactly that back in the day – if my memory’s not failing me now that I’m in my elderly 30s.

    The extra ‘space,’ in terms of innings, may alleviate some of the metric troubles we’re having, too.

  4. Andrew says: June 21, 2012

    When making the comment of “tons of money”, I actually had K-Rod in mind since he’s being offered a hefty 8 million for this season alone. True, Axford makes peanuts in the bigs but I doubt we will retain his services for the meager amount he’s making now in the near future. Thus, with so much money on the table, as a fan, I can’t help but expect results. No matter how much these guys make, they still signed the dotted line.
    I concede that my knowledge in baseball is mediocre at best, as I overlooked the fact that any good starting pitcher needs a good 3-4 pitches in his arsenal, so thanks for the reminder.
    I forget sometimes how versatile a starter really has to be in order to be successful versus the closer, who is prodominately going to rely on his FB and will only (typically) have to deal with the top of the order versus going through a line-up multiple times.
    As far as Weeks, I’m still not sold on his actual ability but that’s just me. I’d love to see him have another good year and at the very least finish this one strong. I still think he has much to prove though in order to be considered a TRUE ALL-STAR.
    The fact that he’s in 5th place currently on the ALL-STAR ballot just reeks of a popularity contest as he’s done nothing to deserve any consideration this year. But I suppose I shouldn’t be naive to the fact that those games are in large part a huge commercial for baseball, but these games are no different in the NFL or NBA. It gets people interested and in the end, I think that’s a good thing.
    I DO love the fact that the winner of this game holds the advantage in the World Series which does add a lot more value to the game itself.

  5. Andrew says: June 21, 2012

    Hi Jeff, just reading your comments…
    I also would like to see K-Rod go 2 innings versus 1 sometimes as often times they will bring K-Rod in the 8th just to make that last out. I’m thinking the same thing at that point: Can’t he go back out there in the 9th and get us 3 more? As long as his pitch count is not getting out of hand, I too would like to stick with the hot hand. And since K-Rod was a closer before becoming our set-up man, it’s not like he would be in unfamiliar territory. It would also give Axford a night off here and there which would probably be a good thing?
    I’m obviously not a pitcher so I don’t know what that arm feels like day to day.
    What do you think, Ryan? Is there a good reason why teams don’t go the 2 inning route more often in regards to their closers? Or do these guys really just run out of gas that quickly?

  6. Ryan Topp says: June 21, 2012

    The multiple inning closer thing used to be common, but died out in the late 80′s and basically was gone by the 1990′s. Look back at guys like Rollie Fingers and Goose Gossage and other closers from the era and they would often go multiple innings to save games.

    What happened? It’s a combination of things. First off, sometime in the early 80′s the number of complete games started to drop quite a bit. When managers figured starters generally had a solid chance to go CG, the idea of using a closer for 2 1/3 innings and thus ensuring he would need a day off the next day wasn’t such a big deal. Relievers may be able to go 2 innings on back to back days on occasion, but then they certainly would need the next day off. With starters going deeper, that wasn’t such a big deal.

    The other thing that happened was what I referenced in my earlier comment: Dennis Eckersley and Tony LaRussa changed the way that closers were used. Because of his physical limitations, Eckersley became a primarily 1 inning reliever a few years into closing. LaRussa adjusted, adopting his now-famous “matchup” style, where he would deploy lots of relivers for short outings to bridge to his closer. It worked, and soon everyone was sort of doing it, though few quite as often (or as successfully) as LaRussa.

    So why can’t it come back? Honestly, a lot of it is fan and media expectations. Managers feel the need to have one guy they can call “closer” and turn to basically every time there is a 9th inning save situation, because it cuts down on criticism. “Hey, the guy is my closer” shuts down a lot of questions. If you were to go to trying to get multiple innings out of closers again, it would mean that a manager would simply need more than one guy capable of basically being exactly as good to platoon. All it takes is a blown save or two (or three, as we’ve seen) and the wolves are very quickly at the door.

    Picture this: John Axford has just pitched 2 1/3 innings and 1 2/3 innings on back to back days and saved the game. He also pitched 2 innings 2 days before the first outing. That’s 6 innings in 4 days. He turns to K-ROD the next day in a save situation, and he blows the lead in ugly fashion. The very next day, a save situation arises. The manager really doesn’t want to use Axford, but feels compelled to do so because choosing K-Rod would be seen by many as a mistake.

    Basically, managers don’t want to have to make choices because those choices are then open to criticism. So this modern bullpen thing protects them. It’s a way powerful thing, and it’s going to take a strong, strong manager with good RP to kill it.

    • Jeff says: June 21, 2012

      Thanks for the reasoned response! Fun reads!

      I guess, to me, that sounds like the bullpen is like it is because they’d rather avoid blame than do their damnedest to win. That’s such a negative approach, it can’t help in the long term… Baseball Manager – an expert at learned helplessness! Heh.

      The thing I always admired about Tony LaRussa is that he really didn’t give much of a rat’s potatoes about what people thought in the stands or in punditland or whatever. And I say that even though I would flinch regularly when he’d come out and haul a guy off the mound after 5 pitches.

      In terms of protection from blame – it’s pretty simple isn’t it? I mean – if you win, they shut up. If you don’t win, there’s really no way to cover your ass for too long. If Roenicke came out to the mound riding a pink toy pony to tell Axford to pitch 3 innings, but he was a 100-game-winner, none of us would make a peep, really. We might buy pink ponies from the concession stand, in fact.

      To me, sports leadership is ideally like Genghis Khan’s leadership. Give them victories and glory and they’ll follow you over mountains, into strange continents, and over mountains of opponents. Hear the lamentation of their womenfolk – all that sort of thing. But if the Chinese kick your ass, it doesn’t matter if you’re the hereditary chieftain or some nut who spent their pre-teen years with a slave collar on.

      I’m not saying that 2+ innings obviously gives you wins, but rather that deciding whether or not to do it shouldn’t be based on blame-avoidance.

      • Ryan Topp says: June 22, 2012

        The thing is, managers CAN’T win every game. That’s part of baseball. In football, coaches play to win to the hilt basically all the time until the playoffs are locked in and there is literally nothing to play for. There is an old saying in baseball that goes something like “everyone is going to win 60, everyone is going to lose 60, what matters is what you do with the other 42″

        A big part of a managers job is deciding when and how to deploy their players based on how likely a win/loss is, especially in the bullpen these days. If a manager were to take the “we need to win every damn game” approach, they would quickly burn out their best relievers through over use. There simply are times when discretion MUST be the better part of valor.

        Part of this modern bullpen setup allows managers to do that. Strict roles for guys may seem stupid and inflexible, and in a sense they are, but it DOES protect a manager when he wants to protect his players.

        If a manager brought in his relief ace once in the 7th inning to shut down a rally and left him in for 2 1/3, then he would be EXPECTED to do it every time, because fans and media don’t readily accept “well, we just didn’t like our chances to win that one” or “I don’t want to overuse him” as reasons. Not when a team is 10 up, not when a team is 10 down.

        This is really a tricky issue. I used to be very negative about how stupid managers are with this modern bullpen. I would bash left and right how it’s used. But as time has worn on, I start to understand managing a bullpen is like managing a crisis situation a lot of times. There often aren’t “good” ways through something, just a series of bad and worse options. No matter what a manager does, there is a good chance of disaster. It’s simply about survival for these guys. Also, it’s about giving the semblance of control to players.

        In an ideal world, I think managers would be able to deploy their relievers based on leverage, giving themselves the best possible chance to win as many games possible. But baseball has never been a perfect world, and it’s just not going to happen. Call it a loss for innovation or a win for predictability, but it doesn’t figure to go anywhere anytime soon.


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