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.