We officially learned yesterday that John Axford had a tipping problem. Specifically, the Cardinals scouting staff noticed he had been tipping his pitches nearly the entire time they had scouted him. This is actually something that Axford himself hinted at during an interview in early September, as he explained to FoxSports Ohio.
Axford, who had lost his job as the Brewers’ closer early in the season, found another reason to be glad to land with the Cardinals in his first meeting with his new coaching staff. The Cardinals gave him some pitching advice — the specifics of which he declined to discuss — that he says immediately helped his performance. “When a team has been looking at you for five years, trying to kill you every single time you’re out there on the mound, they pick up on every little detail they can — what you may be showing, or tipping, or what you’re doing different,”
Maybe this quasi-intervention was what Axford needed to get the message, because this was not the first time this issue has come up in his career.
During the broadcast of a Milwaukee/Atlanta game on July 17 2010, Braves broadcaster Joe Simpson pointed out that Axford was giving away a few tells when preparing to throw his curveball in a matchup against Brooks Conrad.
“Keep an eye on him (Axford) there. After he got the sign for that curveball, it took him a second to load that ball up in his hand. You could see him kind of digging for that grip in his glove. Kind of had his glove almost turned skyward there on that fastball, but the pitch before, the curveball, it wasn’t pointed that way.”
J.P Breen reported in that same game, John Smoltz picked up on the same issue as Simpson, noting that Smoltz was able to correctly predict which pitches Axford was going to execute simply by watching his pre-motion setup. Smoltz would be keen to such an issue as he struggled with it himself in 2009.
This is the view they were picking up on, in terms of his glove angle.
Fast forward to 2013, and the issue of Axford tipping his pitches is once again raised, in a tweet from Troy Renck of the Denver Post as he relayed information passed onto him from a scout.
Scout on Axford: Hitters seeing release point so well almost as though he’s tipping pitches.
— Troy Renck (@TroyRenck) April 4, 2013
Batters reported being able to see the ball easier and that his fastball was rather straight, an issue Axford blamed on the adjustment he had to make to prepare and participate in the World Baseball Classic. Breen reviewed Axford’s release points and found that Axford was working with a slightly higher release point than he did in his stellar 2011 season.
This came on the heels of his first four outings of the season when he permitted nine runs in just 3.1 innings of work, four of which were related to home runs. Axford’s 2013 numbers improved after the rough start, but his overall numbers with Milwaukee in 2013 were a clear step down from where they were previously.
After the St. Louis coaching staff completed its intervention with Axford, they implemented a few tweaks into the reliever’s mechanics. The first change was how Axford came set before going into his delivery.
As a Cardinal, Axford hides his pre-pitch activity in his glove by closing his front shoulder ever so slightly. which also allows him to hide the activity from both left-handed and right-handed batters. Secondly, whereas Axford had typically been deliberate in his pacing while set, he utilized a variable pace in St. Louis. This was on display in his first appearance for them in a plate apperaance against Felix Pie where he quick pitched the batter into a harmless groundball out.
Even within the small sample size of 176 pitches thrown as a member of the Cardinals, the minor improvements led to immediate positive results on the investment.
|2013 St L||0.282||0.349||0.333||25.0%||6.8%||51.0%||32.0%|
Batters swung at an increased rate, perhaps because they were no longer able to able to pick up on what pitch Axford was executing. Batters chased a higher rate of pitches as they lost the intel advantage plus he was able to work from ahead in the count as he found the strike zone more frequently as a Cardinal than he had as a Brewer.
Axford was able to parlay the instruction form St. Louis into a new job as the closer for the Indians. Hopefully, for his sake, his days of tipping off opposing batters are over.