Recently I saw a blurb on The Official Site where the closer role is discussed. While we all know John Axford has had a rough year, this is the first inkling I’ve heard of a closer controversy. I don’t believe Ron Roenicke will be replacing Ax anytime soon, if at all, despite cries from some fans or “Twitter tough guys”. Make no mistake, Axford is still the best reliever Milwaukee has and should still be closing games. I’d like to draw your attention these examples of why:
6/22 W vs. White Sox—ball, ball, foul, ball, ball (leadoff walk); strike (looking), ball, strike (looking), foul, strike (swinging, against Adam Dunn); GIDP (Paul Konerko, game over)
7/3 W vs. Marlins—ball, ball, ball, ball (leadoff walk); ball, ball, strike (looking), strike (foul), GIDP (Omar Infante); strike (looking), ball, strike (foul), strike (looking to Gaby Sanchez, game over)
7/8 W vs. Astros—strike (looking), single (Chris Snyder); strike (looking), single (Matt Dominguez); Jordan Schaefer sacrifice, runners to second and third; ball, ball, ball, strike (looking), strike (looking), strike (looking to Jose Altuve); strike (looking), ball, ball, ball, foul, foul, strike (swinging to Scott Moore, game over)
In high leverage situations, even when he falls behind hitters, Axford has proven he can battle back in counts to throw his curveball and fastball for strikes. This is a sign of a quality reliever, and an ability Turnbow/Kolb/Gagne/whoever-else-you-can-unjustly-compare-Ax-to did not have.
Furthermore, compare the movement on his pitches between last year and this year:
Tough to notice much of a difference, no? One of the only things I can glean from these is increased curveball movement, which could partially explain the spike in his BB/9, Axford’s main problem this year. But this really confirms the assertation that Axford is by and large the same pitcher he was last year, perhaps even better, when you look at his stuff and velocity, which is averaging 96.2, up from 95.5. This all adds up in the sabermetrics: batters are not just swinging at more of his pitches, but they are swinging and missing more as well: 3% more on his fastball and 5% more on his curve.
Why the supposed controversy then? Interestingly, a lot of that matter comes down to run support. I’d like to tip my hat to Vince at Miller Park Drunk, who mentions that in three of Axford’s blown saves he only had a one run lead to work with, and then gave up the tying run. With a two run lead in those games, Ax’s ERA remains the same, but the Brewers’ record improves to 43-42.
By my estimation, we can tie his decreased effectiveness to pitch selection. Fangraphs rated Axford’s slider as his best pitch in 2010, 4.5 runs above average, and second to his fastball in 2011 at 3.8. But he’s throwing the slider almost half as much as he did last year (6.9% of the time, down from 13.3% in 2011 and 16% in 2010), while starting to use his curveball as his go-to non-fastball offering. Out of 42 pitches between the three outings I listed above, Axford only threw two sliders. By straying away from what has actually been his best pitch over his brief career, Axford is becoming more of a two-pitch guy in 2012. While that’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s become problematic this year because his fastball has regressed significantly. Pegged at -5.0 runs, his fastball home run rate is over twice as high in 2012 compared to last year.
At any rate, the Brewers still have the same, very talented closer that they did in 2011, who had one of the best seasons ever by a Brewers closer, if not the best. Throughout baseball’s history, I could probably count the number of relievers who could duplicate or exceed such a stupendous year on one hand.
Image sources: brooksbaseball.net