Axford Axes Save Opportunity

The defending NL Central champions played like it yesterday afternoon as a four-run 9th inning led the Cincinnati Reds to a walk-off win against the Milwaukee Brewers on Opening Day. When Jay Bruce stepped to the plate down three runs with the bases loaded, memories of the division title-clinching walk-off home run by Bruce last season were immediately conjured up.

John Axford, Milwaukee’s newly respected closer who usurped Trevor Hoffman‘s closer duties last season, had allowed a long single to Brandon Phillips, walked Joey Votto on five pitches, and allowed Scott Rolen to reach base thanks to Casey McGehee’s non-error fielding gaffe. McGehee tried to tag Phillips out as the second baseman was going from second to third, but missed the tag and took a second too long to attempt the force out at first. Boom, bases loaded.

But instead of the up-and-comer walking off with the win again, Bruce struck out swinging on a huge Axford curve ball. But on the next pitch, Jonny Gomes knocked in Phillips with a long sacrifice fly. Then it was the under-appreciated Ramon Hernandez who responded with a three-run opposite field walk-off home run. Hernandez’s two-out walk-off home run capped a 4 for 5 day, earning a ridiculous +.908 WPA per JoePawl’s Opening Day recap this morning. The Reds lineup engaged in some sweet hitting against Axford, who allowed a couple hard-hit fly balls when holding a three-run lead is the easiest situation to obtain a save.

Let’s recount Axford’s unfortunate Opening Day performance, starting with Brandon Phillips’ at-bat. In 2010, Phillips swung on 52% of all pitches, but only swung 33% of the time on the first pitch of the at-bat. So it was unexpected that Phillips swung on the first pitch in three out of five at-bats yesterday, including against Axford’s first offering, a fastball. His aggressive approach (if that’s a new adjustment for the season, we’ll come back in at least a month) rewarded him with a long fly ball single off the left-center outfield wall.

With Phillips at first, next up was Joey Votto, your reigning NL MVP. Axford came out throwing his mid-90s fastball again, which he usually uses at least 65% of the time. But Axford couldn’t find the strike zone consistently on several borderline calls as a result of pitching around Votto, with two high and outside fastballs and two low ones barely missing the zone — resulting in a five-pitch walk without Votto’s bat lifted off his shoulder.

Scott Rolen came up and served a conservative approach, but quickly fell behind 1-2. After sitting on a few fastballs again while fouling off pitches in the zone, Rolen was able to work the count to 3-2. He then grounded a 3-2 pitch toward third, resulting in a fielder’s choice due to the aforementioned McGehee defensive misplay.

Up till this point, Axford had thrown 13 fastballs and only one breaking ball, a slider. With Jay Bruce at the plate with the bases loaded, Axford got ahead with an 0-2 count on fastballs. On the 1-2 count, he adjusted from the approach he served Rolen and threw his huge breaking 80 mph curve ball, the first of the night, to get Bruce to strike out swinging. On the next pitch, though, Jonny Gomes came out swinging guessing fastball first pitch (and guessing correctly) and found deep center field, allowing Phillips to tag up for the first run of the inning.

Ramon Hernandez, the hero of Opening Day for the Reds, laid off a first-pitch slider before swinging on an outside fastball, which he promptly belted to the opposite field and into the Brewers’ bullpen. All hell proceeded to break loose at the Great American Ball Park, and a giddy Dusty Baker and his team crowded Hernandez at the plate to celebrate one of (hopefully) many walk-off wins in 2011.

All in all, Axford’s night totaled four balls put in play, three of them towards different parts of the outfield either clearing the fence, off the fence, or on the warning track. On 21 pitches, Axford threw 18 fastballs, two sliders, and one curve ball. That’s a far cry from the 65/19/16 ratio for his fastball/curve/slider repertoire that was accompanied with success in 2010. The fastballs he offered either couldn’t find the strike zone, were poorly placed, or were all too predictable for the Reds lineup, which combined aggressiveness and patience to pound Axford.

Hindsight is 20/20 of course, but what Axford should have done was trust his breaking ball stuff more during this outing. He can get whiffs with his fastball, but he’d be better served if he can mix his breaking balls with them. His slider induced whiffs 22% of the time in 2010, compared to 12% for his fastball. And he clearly had his curve ball breaking yesterday — it’s telling that the only good pitch he had of the night was the one perfectly-placed curve ball that got Jay Bruce to whiff silly. These guys are major league hitters, the Reds being one of the best projected lineups in all of baseball, and if you think you can blow away the heart of that lineup with fastballs down the middle of the plate, well, you just might get deep fly balls all over the field in a hitter’s park.

Albert Lyu (@thinkbluecrew, LinkedIn) is a graduate student at the Georgia Institute of Technology, but will always root for his beloved Northwestern Wildcats. Feel free to email him with any comments or suggestions.

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I thought Baseball Tonight/ESPN actually did I pretty good job illustrating his predictable tendency to “pitch away” … problem was it was “middle away” and “up away” … This isn’t the 1960s where batters don’t drive away pitches … now, they dive into them.