Will John Axford bounce back from a highly visible down year in 2012?
EDITOR'S NOTE: It's my pleasure today to introduce a new contributor to BCB. Below you'll find the debut post of longtime friend of the site Josh Wussow, formerly of Inside Wisconsin Sports. - KL
On the cusp of his age 30 season, John Axford needs to decide what kind of a pitcher he will be going forward. After blowing nine games for the Crew in 2012, the smoke-thrower may be in the midst of some statistical soul-searching. His 4.67 ERA, 39 walks, and 10 allowed home runs across just 69.1 innings account for a major red flag. Combined, these figures burdened the Brewers' closer with an additional 20 earned runs (36 vs. 16 in 2011).With Opening Day just months away, can he find a way to get his career back on track?
Let's look at some of his more advanced metrics. Depending upon who you believe, Axford was worth either 0.2 wins above replacement (Fangraphs/fWAR) or -1.2 WAR (Baseball Reference/rWAR). The deeper you dive, the clearer the problems become. According to PITCHf/x, Ax's average fastball velocity last season was 96.1, a career high. At the same time, his effectiveness with the pitch plummeted. After being devastating with the heater in 2011 (6.9 runs above average), the 2012 Axford Express found itself deep in the red (-5.1 runs above average). I'll spare you the exact totals on his breaking pitches. Suffice to say that his curveball, formerly a plus pitch, suffered from his inability to command the fastball. His slider was still alright, but a man can't live on sliders alone.
Can he turn things around? If I had to guess, I'd say yes. One of the best things about Fangraphs is their forecasts for the coming season. Bill James has projected Axford to go 4-4 in 2013, notching 45 saves (one off his career high), while striking out 90 batters over 72 innings (11.25 K/9). That last stat is notable because, despite his struggles in '12, Axford posted a K/9 of 12.1. Keep that projected dip in mind as we ponder a few more numbers.
The rest of the forecast looks fairly pleasant, until you get to his Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP). Beyond simply measuring a batter's average against the pitcher, BABIP marks their effectiveness on pitches they actually send into the field. It's something of a "bad luck" metric, showing how often balls off the hitters' bats actually fall in for hits. With that said, James expects the opposition to rake at a .331 clip against the Brewers' closer, a sizable jump from his 2012 mark of .307. How can his result-based numbers improve when hitters are teeing off on him? It depends on the kind of hits they're getting. Specifically, James expects Ax to give up only five home runs, as opposed to the ten he yielded last year. Home runs, especially when there are walked men lurking on base, are bad news for a closer.
Forecasting the future is one thing, but let's take a look at some history. Have their been closers in Axford's age range that, despite giving up double digit home runs, have gone on to continued success in their careers? Combing through a list of statistically similar players, I came upon a couple of cases. While with the Houston Astros in '08, a 30 year-old Jose Valverde gave up 10 homers over 72 innings. In the years that followed he was able to reduce that total considerably, at the expense of his strikeout figures. In '08, he posted 10.4 K/9. Since then, his totals have fallen off considerably. In '11, when he racked up an AL-leading 49 saves, he struck out just 8.6 men per complete game. This new approach resulted in just five opposing home runs.
Even more notable is the 1995 season of Roberto Hernandez (this one, not the one formerly known as Fausto Carmona). The White Sox closer saved 32 in his age 30 season, allowing nine home runs versus a K/9 figure of 12.7. His 3-7 record was earned over the course of 57 finished games, which isn't all that far fetched from Ax's 5-8 mark over 54 finished. Hernandez focused more on throwing strikes in the 1996 season, for which he was rewarded with six additional saves (38), a 6-5 record, and an ERA of just 1.91. He allowed just a pair of home runs, while dropping his K/9 ratio to an even 9.0. It's the old baseball truth - speed doesn't mean much if you can't control it. Taking a few miles an hour off of the pitch will allow for better accuracy, which is the key to a long and productive career in a major league bullpen.
The moral of the story? Axford needs to stop trying to blow batters away. His speed is excellent, but it's a lack of control that's getting him into trouble. It's resulting in poor counts, extra walks, and fat pitches for the hitters. His breaking stuff, as good as it may be, isn't going to be effective if he doesn't command the heater. Can he bounce back? Of course. In fact, I'd say it's fairly likely that he'll right the ship and post solid numbers in 2013.
An interesting postscript - Axford will likely be closing for Team Canada in the 2013 World Baseball Classic. This is notable for several reasons. First, he'll have to alter his routine. The extra game experience he'll get could help him work out the kinks by the time the regular season gets underway. A glance at the Team Canada coaching staff yields another note - Paul Quantrill, a longtime MLB relief pitcher, will be among those guiding the pitching staff. While he earned just 21 saves in his 14 years in the majors, Axford's fellow Canadian was known for his excellent control. Over the final six years of his career, in fact, the righthander only twice posted a BB/9 ratio above 2.0. He was also exceptionally durable, leading the American League in games pitched from 2001-2004. While Quantrill might not be the sort of pitcher who could mentor a closer in his early 20's, he may be exactly the sort of tutor Axford needs right now.