Monday afternoon, the Brewers were leading the Cubs 7-2 going into the bottom of the ninth. Brandon Kintzler took the mound, but after three straight batters reached base, he was replaced by Jim Henderson. Henderson allowed a little bit of damage, but he successfully slammed the door, picking up a save. Henderson pitched in part because John Axford threw 18 pitches on Sunday. Henderson pitched more because Axford allowed two more runs Sunday, bringing him to a season total of six in 2.2 innings. Fueling those six runs allowed have been four dingers, as Axford’s problems from 2012 appear to have carried over into the new campaign.
The talk now is that Henderson will replace Axford as the Brewers’ closer. Axford has been getting booed at home, on account of the sucking, and if the Brewers want to contend and make the playoffs, they can’t afford to have an unreliable closer who’s demonstrated his unreliability. Many feel that Axford has earned a demotion. Many reached that point ages ago. It’s no longer a question of whether Axford should be demoted. It’s a question of: what’s the matter with John Axford?
A couple relevant tweets, I think:
Scouts following #brewers say they have no choice but to replace Axford with Henderson as closer
— Bob Nightengale (@BNightengale) April 8, 2013
Scout on Axford: Hitters seeing release point so well almost as though he’s tipping pitches. — Troy Renck (@TroyRenck) April 4, 2013
Tipping pitches is a bad idea, since pitching is so much about sequencing and unpredictability. It’s not the first whispers we’ve heard of Axford tipping his pitches, but it’s not an open-and-shut case. What that is is a scout’s assertion, and the scout is biased by the knowledge that Axford has been getting lit up. How much is actually wrong with Axford, and how much are people just trying to look for reasons?
Between 2010-2011, Axford was good. He allowed five home runs in 124 games. Between 2012-2013, Axford has been bad. He’s allowed 14 home runs in 78 games. What I’m going to show you now is a table of stats. Half of these stats were posted by Axford between 2010-2011, and half of them have been posted by Axford between 2012-2013. They are jumbled and unlabeled to make an intentional point.
Something John Axford hasn’t lost is his ability to miss bats. Command isn’t exactly a strength of his, but it wasn’t one of his strengths even when he was going good. I’ll cheat and tell you that Axford hasn’t lost any velocity. His stuff seems about the same, and his movement seems about the same. Look at that table and you wouldn’t conclude that a guy has completely changed, in terms of results and public opinion. But the player whose stats are shown in that table has gone from being a fan-favorite shutdown closer to a guy no one wants to see in a high-leverage situation. Or almost any situation, if we’re being honest.
That scout above said something about Axford’s release point. This isn’t perfect, but Axford’s release point data, via Brooks Baseball:
That image doesn’t tell us about the specifics of Axford’s delivery, and maybe he’s lost a bit of deception. But his horizontal release point hasn’t significantly changed, and his vertical release point hasn’t significantly changed. Those images are the picture of stability, so we’d have to be dealing with something subtle. And I’ll remind you that Axford hasn’t lost his ability to miss bats. If Axford were giving away what he was going to throw, why are hitters still swinging through his pitches just as often?
Baseball Heat Maps has a useful resource. Based on Gameday information, it can spit out approximate batted-ball distances. The numbers aren’t perfect, but they don’t mean nothing, so let’s take a look at what they’re telling us. Since the start of 2012, Axford has allowed 14 home runs, and his average home runs and fly balls have traveled 294 feet. Throughout 2010, Axford allowed one home run, and his average home run and fly balls traveled 289 feet. There’s a bit of an increase there, but it isn’t massive. It’s a very small leap, that doesn’t seem to explain the profound differences in success.
In searching for explanations, I’m left with one very simple one: dumb luck. Based on a lot of the numbers, it doesn’t seem like John Axford has changed very much. His results, though, have changed quite a bit, mostly because of the home runs. How do we usually handle home-run rates? We know they take a long time to stabilize, and relievers throw even fewer innings than starters do. We remember reliever dingers more, because the stakes tend to be higher, but that doesn’t mean the numbers don’t still have to be treated responsibly.
What does luck look like? Here are three fly balls Axford allowed in his final four appearances in 2010. None of them were home runs. Axford allowed one home run all season.
It’s such an unsatisfying conclusion, luck. And I’m not saying that’s all that’s going on. There might be something up with Axford’s delivery, and there’s probably something up with Axford’s confidence, now. But Axford probably wasn’t as good as his home-run rate before, and he’s probably not as bad as his home-run rate now. Just last year, in the first half, J.A. Happ faced 433 batters and allowed 17 home runs. In the second half, Happ faced 194 batters and allowed two home runs. In the first half, Mat Latos faced 435 batters and allowed 17 home runs. In the second half, Latos faced 423 batters and allowed eight home runs. Axford has faced 326 batters since the start of last season. He’s barely thrown 70 innings. Just because it’s more than one year doesn’t mean it’s not a small sample, and we all know how to feel about small statistical samples.
I’m not a John Axford expert, so don’t take this as gospel. Maybe Axford is really completely screwed up. But I personally don’t think he’s that different from how he used to be, and this is reflected in the hitters’ collective rate of swings and misses. If Axford were way too hittable, some of his numbers wouldn’t make him look so unhittable. It’s difficult to reconcile an excellent contact rate with the idea that hitters know what’s coming.
Remember, if John Axford is unlucky now, he was lucky before. He’s probably not as good as his career peak. But can John Axford be an effective high-leverage reliever? You can get pretty far by striking out three of every ten batters you face. I guess you can call me something of a John Axford believer. There’s gotta be at least one of us.