Just four months ago, the Milwaukee Brewers were finishing up their Cactus League season in Arizona and rumors swirled about the possibility of a contract extension between the Brewers and star closer John Axford.
Axford burst onto the scene in 2010, taking over the closer’s role from a struggling Trevor Hoffman and locking down 24 saves with a 2.48 ERA. A year later, he established himself as one of the elite bullpen arms in all of baseball, compiling a stunning 1.95 ERA with 46 saves — including 43-consecutive saves to end the season.
A contract extension made some sense. Axford desired the financial certainty that accompanies a contract extension. On the other side, the Brewers hoped to avoid arbitration and lock down a contract that would be below market-value. Of course, there is the camp that believes handing out long-term deals to relief pitchers is largely unnecessary — and, with some exceptions, I find myself firmly in this camp — but the desire for financial stability for Axford and the cost-certainty for the Brewers made a deal somewhat inevitable.
No deal was completed, and John Axford now owns a 4.86 ERA with a 4.00 FIP. He is not in danger of losing his role as the team’s closer. When discussing the league’s top closers, however, the 29-year-old is no longer automatically in the discussion.
The answer lies in two key areas: (1) his walk rate, and (2) his home run rate. His 5.13 BB/9 walk rate is more than two batters per nine innings more than his ’11 walk rate. That is reflected by the fact that Axford is only throwing 42.8% of his pitches in the strike zone — the lowest of his big-league career. Walking more batters and getting behind in more counts becomes even more dangerous when understanding that his home run rate has jumped to 1.35 HR/9 — the highest of his major (or minor) league career. It’s so far outside his normal statistical pattern that one wonders if it’s simply statistical variance, or if he has altered his approach to become more home run prone.
In many ways, John Axford has only improved from last year. His fastball velocity has increased by almost a mile per hour, and his ability to generate swinging strikes has increased from last year. Heck, despite his command troubles, he is still striking out 12.69 batters per nine innings, which is amongst the top ten for relief pitchers in the league. The stuff is still there.
From what I have seen from Axford this season, the issue could be more sequencing and an over-reliance on his fastball, which tends to be rather straight at higher velocities. Take last night’s at-bat in the ninth inning against Gaby Sanchez. Axford quickly gets up 0-2 on Sanchez with two 98 MPH fastballs. He then wastes one up in the zone, trying to get him to chase, which proves unsuccessful.
At this point, either his curveball or his slider seemed to be the logical call. Bill Schroeder, the Brewers’ television broadcaster, even called for a curveball in the dirt to end the at-bat. Instead of spinning a curveball — which FanGraphs rates as his only above-average pitch this season — Axford decided to stick with a fastball on the outside corner. Seeing the pitch three-consecutive times, Sanchez jumped on the pitch and blasted one over the right field wall to tie the game.
A 97-98 MPH fastball is extremely hittable when opposing hitters can sit on it, especially fastballs that are rather straight. Axford needs an offspeed pitch to keep guys off his fastball and to change their eye-level. He has lowered his offspeed pitch selection from last year, though, and his fastball usage has jumped to 73.9%.
Simply throwing more offspeed pitches will not guarantee more success. When it comes to sequencing and what Axford brings to the mound, however, he cannot become overly reliant on his fastball. Big league hitters can square up that pitch, especially since he prefers to work his fastball up in the zone. It should help him lower his career-high 24.4% line drive rate and generate weaker contact. That’s one of the big reasons his HR/FB rate has jumped to 21.7%.
It’s important to recognize that poor seasons, such as the one Axford is currently mired within, happen for relievers. It’s naturally a volatile position. Heath Bell has been one of the best closers in all of baseball in recent years, yet he currently has a 6.19 ERA for the Miami Marlins. Left-hander Jonny Venters was perhaps the most dominating lefty reliever last year, yet he currently owns a 4.45 ERA for the Atlanta Braves. The Phillies’ 50-million-dollar man, Jonathan Papelbon, is just two years removed from a 3.90 ERA season that almost cost him his closer’s role in Boston.
Struggles happen as a reliever. The key for John Axford will be adjusting and not allowing his struggles to affect his mentality on the mound. The latter does not seem to be an issue. Thus, Axford will have to sharpen his command and limit the long balls if he wants to regain his dominance on the mound. One way he can help facilitate that improvement, in my opinion, is trust his offspeed stuff a bit more often and sequence his pitches more like he did in his phenomenal 2011 season.