John Axford’s Generous Tipping

We officially learned yesterday that John Axford had a tipping problem. Specifically, the Cardinals scouting staff noticed he had been tipping his pitches nearly the entire time they had scouted him. This is actually something that Axford himself hinted at during an interview in early September, as he explained to FoxSports Ohio.

Axford, who had lost his job as the Brewers’ closer early in the season, found another reason to be glad to land with the Cardinals in his first meeting with his new coaching staff. The Cardinals gave him some pitching advice — the specifics of which he declined to discuss — that he says immediately helped his performance. “When a team has been looking at you for five years, trying to kill you every single time you’re out there on the mound, they pick up on every little detail they can — what you may be showing, or tipping, or what you’re doing different,”

Maybe this quasi-intervention was what Axford needed to get the message, because this was not the first time this issue has come up in his career.

During the broadcast of a Milwaukee/Atlanta game on July 17 2010, Braves broadcaster Joe Simpson pointed out that Axford was giving away a few tells when preparing to throw his curveball in a matchup against Brooks Conrad.

“Keep an eye on him (Axford) there. After he got the sign for that curveball, it took him a second to load that ball up in his hand. You could see him kind of digging for that grip in his glove. Kind of had his glove almost turned skyward there on that fastball, but the pitch before, the curveball, it wasn’t pointed that way.”

J.P Breen reported in that same game, John Smoltz picked up on the same issue as Simpson, noting that Smoltz was able to correctly predict which pitches Axford was going to execute simply by watching his pre-motion setup. Smoltz would be keen to such an issue as he struggled with it himself in 2009.

This is the view they were picking up on, in terms of his glove angle.



Fast forward to 2013, and the issue of Axford tipping his pitches is once again raised, in a tweet from Troy Renck of the Denver Post as he relayed information passed onto him from a scout.

Batters reported being able to see the ball easier and that his fastball was rather straight, an issue Axford blamed on the adjustment he had to make to prepare and participate in the World Baseball Classic. Breen reviewed Axford’s release points and found that Axford was working with a slightly higher release point than he did in his stellar 2011 season.



This came on the heels of his first four outings of the season when he permitted nine runs in just 3.1 innings of work, four of which were related to home runs.  Axford’s 2013 numbers improved after the rough start, but his overall numbers with Milwaukee in 2013 were a clear step down from where they were previously.

SPLIT BA OBP SLG K% BB% Swing% O-Swing%
2010-2012 0.216 0.302 0.321 29.9% 10.7% 43.0% 26.2%
2013 Milw 0.286 0.355 0.461 22.0% 9.4% 41.8% 22.0%

After the St. Louis coaching staff completed its intervention with Axford, they implemented a few tweaks into the reliever’s mechanics. The first change was how Axford came set before going into his delivery.


As a Cardinal, Axford hides his pre-pitch activity in his glove by closing his front shoulder ever so slightly. which also allows him to hide the activity from both left-handed and right-handed batters.  Secondly, whereas Axford had typically been deliberate in his pacing while set, he utilized a variable pace in St. Louis. This was on display in his first appearance for them in a plate apperaance against Felix Pie where he quick pitched the batter into a harmless groundball out.

Even within the small sample size of 176 pitches thrown as a member of the Cardinals, the minor improvements led to immediate positive results on the investment.

SPLIT BA OBP SLG K% BB% Swing% O-Swing%
2010-2012 0.216 0.302 0.321 29.9% 10.7% 43.0% 26.2%
2013 Milw 0.286 0.355 0.461 22.0% 9.4% 41.8% 22.0%
2013 St L 0.282 0.349 0.333 25.0% 6.8% 51.0% 32.0%

Batters swung at an increased rate, perhaps because they were no longer able to able to pick up on what pitch Axford was executing.  Batters chased a higher rate of pitches as they lost the intel advantage plus he was able to work from ahead in the count as he found the strike zone more frequently as a Cardinal than he had as a Brewer.

Axford was able to parlay the instruction form St. Louis into a new job as the closer for the Indians. Hopefully, for his sake, his days of tipping off opposing batters are over.

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10 Responses to “John Axford’s Generous Tipping”

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  1. murphym45 says:

    Know I’m nitpicking, but it looks like the OBP in the last chart might be off. A .004 drop in BAA and a 2.6% drop in BB% should result in more than a .006 drop in OBP.
    Looking at his player page, it appears he had a .363 OBP as a Brewer in ’13, followed by .341 as a Cardinal, for a drop of .022, which makes a bit more sense.

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  2. Marky Mark says:

    I thought Cody Allen or Vinnie Pestano was going to be closer?

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    • Jason Collette says:

      Jordan Bastian wrote on 12/19 that “On Thursday, the Indians made it official: Axford is their new closer.”

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  3. Brandon says:

    Good article. Do you believe teams would be smart to scout themselves on a (more) regular basis? Would it be a prudent investment of resources and, if so, at what point would the investment become a net negative in value? I’m sure teams already do some form of internal scouting If a guy in a booth can pick up on a relief pitchers “tips”, assuming he wasn’t made aware of the tells before the telecast, then ‘self-scouting’ shouldn’t take too much time.

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    • Jason Collette says:

      I don’t feel the Cardinals saw anything different than what the Brewers saw. Sometimes, like parenting, it takes hearing it from another mouth to sink in.

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  4. highrent says:

    The Cardinals do scout themselves. They scout others as well but if you check some of their interviews they scout their own players and prospect a few times a year. I think a lot of clubs do it but the cardinals do so in a very organized and systematic fashion.

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  5. Klements Sausage says:

    I have to say I find it disappointing that nobody on the Brewers coaching staff, or maybe even the catchers, couldn’t pick up on this.

    That said, I wish him the best – he genuinely seems like a great guy. Heck he even appeared to like Cistulli!

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  6. Sparkles Peterson says:

    The idea that a pitcher had been tipping his pitches and could be fixed in 5 minutes was brought up so often during the Duncan years that Cardinals fans mostly just rolled their eyes when this came up after Axford came over. Now I’m a little curious to go see whether Kyle Lohse, Edwin Jackson, John Smoltz, and a dozen other recent Cardinals pitchers closed off their set stances after coming over.

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  7. BSLJeffLong says:

    I would suggest that an increase in swing% is likely more because he seemed to be attacking the zone more (more strikeouts, fewer walks)so hitters were expecting to see strikes more often. I think that not knowing what’s coming makes you less likely to swing because it takes longer to decipher the pitch that is coming, determine if it’s a strike, initiate swing, etc.

    Could also just be statistical noise. Tough to tell.

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