What’s Wrong With John Axford?

John Axford is struggling. After blowing another save last night, the Brewers’ closer is now tied for the league-lead with six blown saves. Over the last two seasons, Axford had emerged as one of the best relievers in baseball. Among qualified relievers, Axford rated fourth overall with 3.9 WAR. While relief pitchers are rarely able to sustain their greatness for multiple seasons, there were few signs that Axford was headed for regression. While the Brewers are losing ground this season, Axford is under team control until 2017. If the Brewers hope that Axford will continue to be a shutdown closer in the future, they are going to have to figure out what’s wrong with him.

Axford’s biggest problem this season has been his control. Axford has never had pinpoint control — as evidenced by his career 10.4% walk rate, but he did a better job limiting his walks last season. After walking 8.2% of batters last year, Axford has walked 11.7% this season. And while his strikeout rate is up from last year, it hasn’t been enough to compensate for more walks. Axford has managed to get by with shaky control in the past, but it’s catching up with him this season.

Axford has also given up home runs at an insane rate this season. Axford is giving up home runs on 22.2% of his fly balls. That’s the sixth worst rate among qualified relievers. The good thing is, that rate is unsustainable over a full season, and Axford has never been a homer-prone pitcher in his short career. There’s a chance that some of his struggles with home runs has just been bad luck. At the same time, it’s clear that Axford is not pitching like the dominant reliever we’ve grown to expect.

Hitters are really teeing off against Axford. His line drive rate has ballooned to 26.4% this year. When hitters make contact against Axford, it’s been hard contact. That’s somewhat strange because Axford hasn’t necessarily been more hittable this year. Hitters are actually making less contact against Axford than last season. All of his contact rates — O-Contact%, Z-Contact% and Contact% — are down. Hitters are swinging a bit more at Axford’s stuff, particularly in the zone, where his Z-Swing% has jumped to 66.3. He still has swing-and-miss stuff, but when hitters make contact, they’ve really hit him hard.

It looks like the problem might be Axford’s fastball. After years of good results with his fastball, it’s been dreadful this season. Axford has a -6.0 pitch value with his fastball, which puts him among the worst qualified relievers this season. It’s difficult to determine why Axford’s fastball has been hit so hard this season. He hasn’t lost any velocity. In fact, he’s actually throwing harder this year. His average fastball velocity is up to 96.3 mph. Axford has also lost some effectiveness on his slider. The pitch had been a weapon in the past, but this season it hasn’t saved or lost any runs, leading to a 0.0 pitch type. The only pitch that has worked for Axford is his curveball. The problem is that the curve has always been Axford’s most difficult pitch to throw for a strike, according to BrooksBaseball.net. That could be one explanation for the heightened walk rate.

Axford hasn’t been the same pitcher this year. He’s walked far too many hitters, and his fastball is being creamed. There’s a chance hitters are being more patient against Axford, knowing that his control is spotty. Once he gets behind in the count, they can sit on his fastball and drive it all over the field. And since he struggles to throw his curve for strikes, opposing hitters may just allow the pitch to go by without a swing. If Axford hopes to regain his form, some changes need to be made. The Brewers may be better off turning to Francisco Rodriguez in the short term, in order to save their closer of the future.

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Chris is a blogger for CBSSports.com. He has also contributed to Sports on Earth, the 2013 Hard Ball Times Baseball Annual, ESPN, FanGraphs and RotoGraphs. He tries to be funny on twitter @Chris_Cwik.

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Bob
Guest
Bob

If you’re going to claim that a particular performance metric is unsustainable, you should probably back that up with some sort of reasoning. Regression to the mean does not always happen.

From my own admittedly unscientific observations of the Brewers, all of Axford’s problems stem from his control (or lack therof). He falls behind in the count frequently. When he is behind in the count, he relies almost exclusively on his fastball. With 3 balls, he throws fastball 91% of the time. With 2 balls and 1 strike, he throws fastball 89% of the time. Hitters sit on this pitch, which he likes to throw up in the zone, and crush it. Until he starts getting in pitcher’s counts, this will continue to happen.

diegosanchez
Guest
diegosanchez

Your one paragraph told me more than this entire article. Thank you.

Rob
Guest
Rob

Ah, actually, regression to the mean does always happen. The only question is how long it takes to do so. And you pretty much restated what the article said. So, thanks.

Anon
Guest
Anon

No, it doesn’t. The people who don’t regress don’t stay in the majors.

Bob
Guest
Bob

If regression to the mean always happens, then every player in MLB would have the same career stat lines (given the same tenure). Some players are better than the average, some players are worse than the average. The same theory applies to the various ways to measure performance.

CabreraDeath
Member
CabreraDeath

What he said…..

The only thing I would like to have seen (and can see on my own, obviously) is more information on what happens to him when he is behind in the count. Not just what pitches are thrown (that’s rather obvious that fastballs will be more prevalent) but what has been done with those pitches by the batter. Considering the batter’s LD%, I presume he is getting beat up behind the count, but numbers would work well to either prove that presumption or rebut it.

rea
Guest
rea

actually, regression to the mean does always happen. The only question is how long it takes to do so.

Which of course explains why Babe Ruth has such a lousy OBP nowdays

baty
Guest
baty

So, is there any accounting for how he got better after having significant struggles for long periods of time throughout his NCAA and MILB development as well? His rap sheet is pretty long when it comes to being volatile with command. In the NCAA he had a knack of nearly averaging a walk and strikeout per inning. In my opinion he’s only had 1 season since his age 19 NCAA season (2002) where his control/command has been consistently reliable (2011). He didn’t start finding success until his age 26 season in A+ ball (2009). So my question, is what made him a suddenly better relief pitcher (2010) as a 27 year old rookie, and then a good pitcher with suddenly good command (2011).

It doesn’t surprise me that a pitcher as volatile as Axford could have problems being consistently “good” from year to year throughout a career, even after finding great success. I know MILB numbers/scouting reports aren’t as reliable and understandable as interpretations, but I think an article like this has to look further into his past.

Calvin
Guest
Calvin
rogue_actuary
Member
Member
rogue_actuary

You’re mistaking “observed mean to date” with “underlying talent level”. While Axford has enjoyed excellent results up to this point in his career, there is a lot more randomness in the outcomes than a lot of fans would like to admit.

How can Axford’s fastball and slider be so ineffective sometimes, and yet result in his career-high K/9 (or, more meaningfully, that he’s struck out 30% of all of the batters he has faced)?

I haven’t done any research on the subject, but I would imagine that a big part of what fans observe to be “a problem” is actually the pitcher’s response to bad outcomes. When HRs leave the park at a rate of 1 out of every 5, and when your BABIP is running at a career high, it seems like pitchers tend to try to do more. But the fact that Axford is still striking out so many guys is evidence (to me) that there isn’t anything wrong with the quality of his pitches.

Regarding the HR/FB, his 22.2% would rank as the third highest full-season number for an RP (excluding 2012) since 2001. And the guys in the 18%+ neighborhood over that time have not been particularly impressive relievers. The lowest xFIP of the lot was Tom Gordon’s 3.20 in 2006. If you don’t split out the years and set the innings limit at 200, only four guys are over 15%. And very few guys put up 10K/9 who are even over the 10% HR/FB mark.

Farnsworth: 9.8K/9, 11.3% HR/FB, 40.2% GB
Lidge: 12.0, 10.8%, 40.8%
Dotel: 11.4, 10.2%, 31.6%
Juan Cruz: 9.8, 10.8%, 36.9%
Valverde: 10.4, 9.8%, 40.2%

For context, Axford’s career line is: 11.3K/9, 7.6% HR/9, 47.7% GB.

What’s wrong with Axford? Likely nothing. In his roughly 140 IP prior to 2012, he gave up 5 HR and had a BABIP below .300. In 37 IP this year, he has given up 6 HR (still only 1.46/9) and is suffering through a BABIP of .346.

Maybe Axford wasn’t quite as good as his first 140 innings, but it would be pretty surprising if he didn’t regress to something much closer to those 140 IP than what he’s demonstrated over his last 37. If anything, he might be suffering a crisis of confidence, which may or may not be leading to an increase in walks.

The strand rate will come up from 65.2%.

Sen-Baldacci
Guest
Sen-Baldacci

MLB network played Axford’s inning last night so a lot of people may have seen it. As others mention below his curveball in particular couldn’t find the zone. The announcer went so far as to say on a 3-2 count to furcal (i think) that if he can just get his curve over the plate, its game over. He didn’t. Inside for ball 4.
Then Holliday was struggling to catch up to the fast ball and chased it a little on the outside of the plate where Axford was pitching him. Holliday predictably grounded weakly to the right side of the infield, but due to fielder position it wiggled through untouched. I was a little surprised that on a fastball count and working the outside of the plate (to a righty) they didn’t have the 2B playing deeper and ready to cover the hole, but I’m no manager.

That game could have easily been over last night without the blown save, but that’s the bad luck you create for yourself when you aren’t working ahead in the count and you can’t execute a breaking ball.