John Axford is struggling. After blowing another save last night, the Brewers’ closer is now tied for the league-lead with six blown saves. Over the last two seasons, Axford had emerged as one of the best relievers in baseball. Among qualified relievers, Axford rated fourth overall with 3.9 WAR. While relief pitchers are rarely able to sustain their greatness for multiple seasons, there were few signs that Axford was headed for regression. While the Brewers are losing ground this season, Axford is under team control until 2017. If the Brewers hope that Axford will continue to be a shutdown closer in the future, they are going to have to figure out what’s wrong with him.
Axford’s biggest problem this season has been his control. Axford has never had pinpoint control — as evidenced by his career 10.4% walk rate, but he did a better job limiting his walks last season. After walking 8.2% of batters last year, Axford has walked 11.7% this season. And while his strikeout rate is up from last year, it hasn’t been enough to compensate for more walks. Axford has managed to get by with shaky control in the past, but it’s catching up with him this season.
Axford has also given up home runs at an insane rate this season. Axford is giving up home runs on 22.2% of his fly balls. That’s the sixth worst rate among qualified relievers. The good thing is, that rate is unsustainable over a full season, and Axford has never been a homer-prone pitcher in his short career. There’s a chance that some of his struggles with home runs has just been bad luck. At the same time, it’s clear that Axford is not pitching like the dominant reliever we’ve grown to expect.
Hitters are really teeing off against Axford. His line drive rate has ballooned to 26.4% this year. When hitters make contact against Axford, it’s been hard contact. That’s somewhat strange because Axford hasn’t necessarily been more hittable this year. Hitters are actually making less contact against Axford than last season. All of his contact rates — O-Contact%, Z-Contact% and Contact% — are down. Hitters are swinging a bit more at Axford’s stuff, particularly in the zone, where his Z-Swing% has jumped to 66.3. He still has swing-and-miss stuff, but when hitters make contact, they’ve really hit him hard.
It looks like the problem might be Axford’s fastball. After years of good results with his fastball, it’s been dreadful this season. Axford has a -6.0 pitch value with his fastball, which puts him among the worst qualified relievers this season. It’s difficult to determine why Axford’s fastball has been hit so hard this season. He hasn’t lost any velocity. In fact, he’s actually throwing harder this year. His average fastball velocity is up to 96.3 mph. Axford has also lost some effectiveness on his slider. The pitch had been a weapon in the past, but this season it hasn’t saved or lost any runs, leading to a 0.0 pitch type. The only pitch that has worked for Axford is his curveball. The problem is that the curve has always been Axford’s most difficult pitch to throw for a strike, according to BrooksBaseball.net. That could be one explanation for the heightened walk rate.
Axford hasn’t been the same pitcher this year. He’s walked far too many hitters, and his fastball is being creamed. There’s a chance hitters are being more patient against Axford, knowing that his control is spotty. Once he gets behind in the count, they can sit on his fastball and drive it all over the field. And since he struggles to throw his curve for strikes, opposing hitters may just allow the pitch to go by without a swing. If Axford hopes to regain his form, some changes need to be made. The Brewers may be better off turning to Francisco Rodriguez in the short term, in order to save their closer of the future.
Chris is a blogger for CBSSports.com. He has also contributed to Sports on Earth, the 2013 Hard Ball Times Baseball Annual, ESPN, FanGraphs and RotoGraphs. He tries to be funny on twitter @Chris_Cwik.