I haven't been able to see every game that John Axford has pitched this month, but it's very clear that the results have been better over the recent Brewer hot stretch and I wonder if he's doing things differently or if his cycles of struggles and success throughout the season are just, you know, baseball.
I'll start anecdotally and then work my way into the data and see if we can figure out what's going on. First, Axford has struck out more people than he did last year per inning but his walk rate has also skyrocketed, something anybody watching more than a few of his games this summer could easily tell you. My rough hypothesis here is that when I watched him this summer, he was erratic, and throwing harder than I had ever seen him throw-- in the 97-98 mph range. Watching him in September, I've tended to see him sitting around 94-95. Has there been any connection between him scaling back and throwing more strikes?
Since August 25, Axford has thrown 11 1/3 innings, with 12 strikeouts, 8 walks, and 3 earned runs. His walk rate in that stretch is higher than his season walk rate, so while that's not encouraging, it doesn't necessarily invalidate the idea that he's been toning down the fastball to hit corners in tough situations.
In terms of raw velocity, before August 25th he averaged 96.2 mph on fastballs; excluding today's game Axford had averaged 95.8 mph after August 26th. Obviously those averages are similar, so I looked at 3 random Axford blown saves from June and July and then at 3 saves in the recent run and compare velocity data.
To the shock of probably everybody, my gut instinct and intuition was wrong, as it so often is in baseball analysis. The three blown saves I pulled in the summer had fastball averages from 96-97 and highs from 98-99. The first September save, on the second versus the Pirates, he averaged... in the mid 96 range and topped out above 98. He had no walks in this particular save, either.
The only real difference I've been able to pinpoint so far is his reduced reliance on the breaking ball in this recent streak of stronger performance. He's thrown closer to 80% fastballs this month, up from about 72% before that this season, and under 70% in his past two seasons. So he's moving even further away from his past method of success, but it's been working in the results department so far.
So, back at this start of this, I asked if Axford was doing something fundamentally different over the recent hot streak that was helping to give him success. My answer is: probably not. Axford's a good pitcher who ran into a lot of control issues and bad luck this summer. He might have decided to get back to focusing on the fastball more to avoid getting himself in bad situations, but other than that he hasn't done a whole heck of a lot different. It's baseball, bad seasons or parts of seasons happen. Ask Rickie Weeks. His luck has evened out as of late, he hasn't been perfect but his mistakes have not hurt him as badly. We may never see 2011-level Axford again, but few relief pitchers ever have been able to put up two seasons of that type of performance. He's a good late inning reliever and is hitting his stride at a most opportune time of year.