John Axford began the 2013 season as the Milwaukee Brewers closer and, more telling, as the longest tenured member of the Milwaukee Brewers bullpen. Gone were holdovers and friends, colleagues and mentors, teammates and Brew-Tang Clan members.
After struggling through much of 2012, the playoff push that the Brewers put together in August and September last season was fueled in no small part by the resurgence of Axford as closer. He was good again.
He entered 2013 coming off of an okay run with Team Canada and a handful of lukewarm outings in Cactus League play, but he was the closer. There was no doubt that he would start the season firing on all cylinders.
Except that then he didn’t.
I take some guff on Twitter for when I support Axford in Save opportunities. I tweet a simple hashtag when he’s entering the game in a Save opp. “#JohnAxfordSaves” is all it reads. It was a play off of his follicle situation in 2011 when he got on his incredible consecutive Saves streak. He had long hair, great facial hair, and was saving games. It worked. No one complained in 2011. People would wait for the tweet, expect the tweet, and retweet the hell out of it. We had fun. Then 2012 happened and Axford blew a whopping. astronomical, unbelievable, unfathomable, ridiculous, asinine… nine Saves. He saved 35. But those nine failures in a game of failure led a handful of people to whine about the use of the hashtag. I kept it going this year in the lone opportunity that he had. I’ll use it again in his next opportunity.
I make mention of the hashtag situation because the next opportunity Axford gets certainly seems like it’ll be coming sooner rather than later.
In comments to the media this past week, Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said that it might not take much to give Axford the closer’s job back in Milwaukee. I won’t break down bullpen roles and personnel utilization here, but let’s focus on why Roenicke felt it was okay to make that statement.
John Axford appears to be back.
In his first four appearances of 2013, Axford’s results were pretty bad. Ironically, his best outing of the group was the one in which he blew his only Save chance this year when Dexter Fowler (who has since shown a much more powerful approach this season) jumped a first-pitch fastball in a bad location for a solo home run. Ax struck out the side around that pitch, including walking no one. Then, over the next three games Axford allowed a combined eight earned runs on eight hits and two walks over just 2.1 innings pitched. His ERA sat at 24.30 and some fans who only remembered the number nine instead of 35 and 46 were calling for his role, job, spot on the roster, and anything else within (and a couple completely outside of) reason.
I said it during last season, but Axford was so good in 2011 that he was set up to disappoint casual fans in 2012. He simply couldn’t be expected to maintain that level of success. There’s something called “sustainability” when looking at trends and averages and the like in statistical analysis of this great game. Guys hit well over .400 for stretches during the season, as an example, but there’s a reason nobody has hit .400 over an entire season in such a long time. In short, Axford shouldn’t have been expected to go 46-for-48 again, but some people did expect it and wildly jeered him when he didn’t deliver.
When Axford is “right”, he’s got upper-90s velocity, he keeps his fastball down in the zone as the norm, and can throw both of his off-speed pitches for strikes. His fastball has always been a bit straight, but location helps and being able to keep hitters off of it with the curveball and slider is important as well. When Axford was struggling to start the season, his velo was down and despite having relatively good command, he was getting hit pretty hard.
Axford has put together a run of six scoreless outings since that early-season blowup. He’s thrown 5.1 innings and allowed exactly two hits and zero walks. Over that same span he’s also struck out six batters. The first couple of games in this mini-run were certainly encouraging, but Axford would still give up some hard hit balls and his fastball would sit 93 and touch 95. Then the appearance in San Diego really started to puts some doubters — though somehow not most — at ease.
Coming out of the visitor’s bullpen to work an ultimately clean inning, Axford had the velo back. He was hitting 97 MPH on the radar gun and kept the ball down in the zone. It was a truly vintage Axford performance.
Following Roenicke’s comments about the closer’s job though, Axford was talked to by the media to get his thoughts about the job. He told reporters that, “(Current closer) Jim (Henderson) has my vote of support. If that’s what’s working now, it’s definitely the best thing. You don’t want to fix anything that’s not broken, that’s for sure.”
Those are words that fans would definitely prefer to hear right now as Henderson has been perfect in Save opportunities so far in 2013, but given Axford’s disposition and attitude, you have to think he isn’t just blowing the proverbial smoke.
Reporters then asked Axford about the rediscovery of his lost velocity. Axford admitted that there was “a very subtle change” in his mechanics that both pitching coach Rick Kranitz and bullpen coach Lee Tunnell helped identify and fix.
“It was a small adjustment of literally being more athletic, the way Lee told me to do it in the first place in 2009,” said Axford. “I was getting too upright on the mound, and now I’m making sure I’m more athletic and over my body. It was just a matter of being more comfortable with it.”
With the big fastball back and still commanding all of his pitches, Axford certainly has the look of someone who has returned to the form that netted him both Cy Young and MVP votes after the 2011 season.
Will there be hiccups along the way? Yes. Expect some, don’t freak out every time something goes wrong, and you’ll enjoy these games a lot more.
As for the hashtag, it’ll be there in all its superstitious glory just as soon as it’s accurate to do so.