When John Axford left Milwaukee late in the 2013 season I believe most Brewers fans were ecstatic. In their minds, “Axe” had gone the way of Derek Turnbow. He came on like a lighting bolt and burned out worse than an overexposed reality TV star that read too much of their own press. I was not one of these people. I will admit that I thought it was time for Axford to have a change of scenery. What I didn’t agree with was the belief that he was somehow less of pitcher than he was in his breakout year of 2011.
With that in mind, the decision of the Indians to sign him to close games was a great one that will pay huge dividends all summer and, perhaps, into the fall. Why the divergence of opinion you ask? Simply put, I believe that most Brewer fans got caught up in thinking that Axford should live up to the gunslinger persona complete with Wyatt Earp stache and a rock star following. When he didn’t, they were ready to cut him loose. What they missed of course, was the fact that he was still had the makeup of a lockdown reliever.
Let’s talk physical attributes for a second. Axford has all the tools you want from a pitcher tasked with getting the last three (or even five) outs of a game. Plus fastball? Check. Above average second pitch? Check. The ability to throw multiply days with no residual effects? Check.
He also has many of the intangible qualities that General Managers look for in their closers. Axford is a veteran with experience in a pennant race and success in the postseason. In addition, despite struggling last season, he never made excuses and he never shied away from taking the ball.
There are some drawbacks of having Axford on your staff of course. His control can be suspect. He tends to overthrow sometimes and, if he doesn’t throw his curveball for strikes, batters do tee off on his fastball. Finally, he seems to lose focus sometimes. Any Brewer fan can tell you of a game where Axford was cruising along and then allowed the other team to load the bases with two out.
Axford is not the first closer to suffer from suspect control and a somewhat lackadasical approach on the mound. Fans who think that he is a head case who doesn’t deserve another chance to help a contender forget that plenty of closers have gone from star to reclamation project to star again. Anybody remember Jose Mesa? Mesa saved saved 101 games for Cleveland from 1995-1997. Then, he fell on hard times and was unceremoniously bounced from town with the thought that he would never be a great closer. Of course, after he left the banks of the Cuyahoga he saved 215 games.
The moral of the story? If Indians fans and team management allow Axford to grow back into the job of closer, he will make the difference between winning a pennant and finishing second for the second summer in a row.
Lee Kluck is a historian from Stevens Point Wisconsin. He has been a member of the True Blue Brew Crew since age four.