John Axford: the Cardinals’ newest reclamation project

On Friday the Cardinals acquired Brewers reliever John Axford for a player to be named later. While dominant in 2010 and 2011, Axford’s lackluster performance since 2012 has many Cardinals fans uninspired by the move. In fact, most of the media attention has centered around his public farewell to Milwaukee fans.

Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch offered his own analysis of the deal, calling it a “smart gamble” for the Cardinals. In addition to acknowledging Axford’s well documented HR/FB% struggles, Miklasz highlighted that the former closer has been particularly challenged by an ineffective fastball and poor performance in high-leverage situations.

PITCHf/x data on Axford’s fastball:

Year

Pitches

LD%

OPS

wOBA

2011

838

18.0%

.670

.300

2012

1018

24.1%

.844

.360

2013

636

31.9%

.835

.367

Axford’s performance in high-leverage situations:

Year

IP

LD%

OPS

wOBA

2011

30.1

7.2%

.427

.202

2012

26.2

28.1%

.772

.336

2013

11.1

28.6%

1.094

.450

FanGraphs readers will know that Cardinals GM John Mozeliak and his organization’s pitching staff have developed a reputation in recent years for quietly acquiring mediocre pitchers and helping them reach previously unimagined levels of success on the mound. To the extent that Mozeliak and company have similar designs for Axford, one must ask how they plan to help him reclaim his once dominant form.

The Cardinals may suggest any number of tweaks to Axford’s approach, but smart money has them coaching him to focus on throwing more first-pitch strikes. Jeff Sullivan recently reminded us of the importance of pitching ahead, and its import is surely not lost on manager Mike Matheny and pitching coach Derek Lilliquist. Since 2012, Redbird pitchers rank tops in the majors in terms of throwing first-pitch strikes.

Team

IP

F-Strike%

Reds

2682.1

62.4%

Cardinals

2670

62.4%

Yankees

2649.2

62.4%

Phillies

2663.1

62.3%

Braves

2659

62.2%

Diamondbacks

2674.1

61.8%

Rays

2657.2

60.7%

Tigers

2661

60.7%

Rangers

2656.1

60.7%

Pirates

2665

60.6%

In the same piece, Sullivan also noted that since arriving in St. Louis in July 2012, Edward Mujica has established himself as the league leader in first-pitch strikes, increasing that figure from a pedestrian 60.9% in 2011 to an elite 75.6% in 2013. Doing so has no doubt played a large part in his improved performance in high-leverage innings.

Mujica in 2011 with the Marlins:

Split

IP

OPS

wOBA

Low Leverage

31.1

0.556

0.242

Medium Leverage

29.2

0.656

0.284

High Leverage

15.0

0.781

0.325

Mujica in 2013 with the Cardinals:

Split

IP

OPS

wOBA

Low Leverage

20.2

0.561

0.244

Medium Leverage

16.2

0.518

0.222

High Leverage

20.0

0.529

0.234

While Mujica’s 2011 performance in high-leverage situations was not nearly as poor as Axford’s has been in 2012 and 2013, there exists a similar opportunity for improvement.

Specifically, Axford is getting absolutely crushed when behind in the count this season.

Axford’s 2013 pitching splits:

Split

IP

OPS

wOBA

Through 3 – 0

1.2

0.855

0.440

Through 3 – 1

3.1

1.383

0.555

Through 3 – 2

8

0.948

0.409

Through 2 – 0

8

0.981

0.412

Through 1 – 0

24.1

0.960

0.410

As they did when acquiring Mujica last year, look for the Cardinals to initially deploy Axford into low-leverage situations in which he can regain his confidence and focus on getting ahead in the count. If successful, one would expect the club to move Axford into higher-leverage situations, particularly if Mujica or Trevor Rosenthal wears down or runs into trouble down the stretch.




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