First off, I just want to personally thank Stephanie and the rest of the writers for being kind enough to welcome me back to the blog. I took some time off, and this is my first column in quite some time. I am thrilled to be back, and could not be more pleased to come back with this piece.
I think I speak on behalf of the majority of Cleveland Indians fans when I state that the John Axford signing for 1 year, 4.5 million was the most interesting personnel move of the 2013 Cleveland Indians off-season. John essentially earned this contract based on his performance during the St.Louis Cardinals 2013 playoff push, in which he spun a 1.69 ERA over 16 innings (20 strikeouts). These numbers were after Milwaukee gave up on him, dealing him on August 30th for fringe prospect Michael Blazek. Considering the fact that Joe Smith received slightly more than 4.5 million per year in a three-year deal from the Los Angeles Angels, John was welcomed to the 2014 Indians roster with some pretty high expectations; however, this season has shown “The Ax Man” to be more of his 2013 Milwaukee self, rather than the stopper the Indians thought they were getting.
A quick browse over both John’s adult life and career numbers leaves many asking “Which guy is he?” One of Major league Baseball’s most interesting roller coaster rides, John began as a highly regarded Canadian high school prospect drafted by the Seattle Mariners in the 7th round of the MLB amateur draft. Seeing the potential for him to further develop and become a top pick, John declined a contract offer and enrolled at Notre Dame, where he blew his arm out during his junior year. Although he was later drafted by the Cincinnati Reds in the 46th round, the Reds declined to formally offer him a contract after observing him pitch just one game.
John eventually moved onto the Canadian summer league, a league that does not offer salary to its players. After a career game in which he struck out 19 batters in seven innings, he caught the eye of the New York Yankees, who signed him in 2007.
Despite a 3.39 across three levels for the Yankees, he was released after one season. John then attempted to use his film degree, but with no interest turned to jobs such as selling cell phones for Telus Communications and bar tending to get by financially. After a throwing session in front of only one Brewers scout (scouts from other teams were not able to make it due to a winter storm), Axford was picked up. By the end of 2009, he had made his major league debut for the Brewers, and began closing games for the brew crew in 2010.
John’s Major League pitching career also follows a roller coaster like path. Consider the following basic statistical measures for Axfords career:
|2013 St. Louis||1.69||1.36|
As you can see from above, as John’s WHIP (walks plus hits per inning) increased, his ERA increased. This is a common correlation, as pitchers allow more hits and walks it creates more base runners to have the chance to score; however, what actually caused John’s ERA/WHIP fluctuation over the course of his career? More Walks? Hits? Or Both?
Before I get to some potential explanations regarding John’s statistical ups and downs, I feel obligated to share some interesting information I found while researching:
- Of the 46 pitchers who have earned at least 50 saves since Axfords debut in 2009, only three current closers have thrown more fastballs than Axford’s 3,583. Those three in order: Grant Balfour (4,242), Johnathan Papelbon (4,224), and Fernando Rodney (3,750).
- Since 2009, only 5 current closers have given up more home runs than John Axford’s 28.
- Of those 28 longballs, Axford gave up 26 of them off of his fastball, most of any current closer in the data set.
- For perspective’s sake, John’s MLB debut was September 15, 2009. He gave up his first home run on a fastball on July 10th, 2010. When did he give up his home run via curveball? Almost 3 years later, on April 3rd, 2013.
Hopefully it is starting to become apparent that although most closers rely on a strong fastball (and Axford has one, averaging 95.4 MPH on the gun since his debut), no closer has been burned more by it than John.
Time for another table:
|Year||BA vs. LH||BA vs. RH||IP||BB||H||XBH||HR|
As I referenced in a earlier table, John was at his best in 2010 and 2011; however, I believe the above table dives further into what has plagued John in recent years. Pay particular attention to his 2012 line, in which Axford walked a career high 39 batters, and also gave up a career high ten home runs. Take a look at his 2013 numbers in the above table as well, which indicate that despite him cutting down on walks, he turned in a career high 73 hits allowed and 20 XBH (10 HRs). It is due to these upticks that both his WHIP and ERA increased significantly in 2012 and 2013. As for the line 2014, as of May 14th Axford is currently on pace for his worst season in the majors.
One question remains however; what caused this uptick? A decrease in control? Velocity loss? Surprisingly, no and no. Since 2012, Axford has actually gained one MPH on his fastball, and despite toying with heat maps for hours I could not come up with a feasible heat map showcasing a loss of control.
Perhaps it is something a little more obvious, such as the hitter knowing where the pitch is coming. Consider the following heat maps:
Compare that map to…
Although the red area is not as large, do you notice the similarity as I do? Purely speculative, but a potential theory as to why right handed hitters are finding more success against Axford could be due to the fact that they have adjusted to where Axford is throwing. They know Axford is attempting to work them away, and they adjusted to hit middle-away. If you need more evidence, check out the hit spray chart that corresponds to the 2012-2014 hits map above:
Shall we quickly look at the Axford maps involving left handed hitters? Trust me, they are just as interesting.
Again, my theory is simply speculative, but I do believe that the information does support this thought process. Either way, I really do hope John can find a way to right the ship and regain the closer role. If not, he at least has a future picking oscar winners.