Current Milwaukee Brewers relief pitcher and former closer John Axford has been downright horrific so far in 2013 after struggling mightily in 2012 and eventually losing his job as closer. He was so good in 2010 and 2011, however, that at one point he converted 49 consecutive save opportunities and won the 2011 Rolaids Relief award (a dumb award, but still) in a season in which his ERA was an impressive 1.95.
In 2012, Axford’s ERA shot up to 4.67, and he converted just 35 of 44 save opportunities, blowing nine chances at closing out games for the Brew Crew. So far in 2013, his ERA is an unsightly 6.64, and Axford has been pitching in a weird, mostly-mopup role late in games, but usually entering with the Brewers trailing. Manager Ron Roenicke is presumably trying to get his former closer back on track in pitching in short stints in relatively close ball games, but rarely in a high-leverage situation with the game on the line.
So what happened? In many discussions regarding Axford’s nearly year-long nosedive, the issue of velocity has arisen. The allegations of lower velocity are true: according to FanGraphs, Axford’s fastball velocity has dropped from an average speed of 95.6 in 2011 to just 94.9 in 2013. Of course, in his successful 2010 season, Axford’s fastball also averaged 94.9 miles per hour, the exact same speed as it has thus far in 2013. And in his disastrous 2012 season, he dialed his heater all the way up to 96.2. So maybe that isn’t it.
If we can’t solely blame diminished velocity, let’s take a look at Axford’s control. Sure enough, his walk rate has skyrocketed, going from just 8.2% in 2011 to 12.6% in 2012 and 9.2% in 2013. Of course, this has led to batters being able to wait until they manage to get ahead in the count, and then sit on fastballs in the heart of the plate. All of the peripherals point to this fairly easy explanation:
|First-Pitch Strike %||61.6%||54.2%||53.1%|
|Swing at Pitches in Zone||60.7%||65.0%||56.9%|
|Total Pitches in Zone||46.7%||43.1%||43.8%|
Clearly, the lack of first-pitch strikes will lead to a rapid increase in walks issued. In addition, note the increase in strikes that were swung at in 2012, when batters jumped all over mistakes by Axford. As his control continued to suffer, batters have learned to lay off borderline strikes, waiting until they’re ahead in the count and then jumping all over 2-0, 2-1, and 3-1 pitches. Opposing hitters can now afford to take some strikes, as they assume that they’ll eventually get ahead in the count anyways and either work a walk or see a meatball that they can make solid contact with.
Of course, the dip in velocity isn’t a positive thing for Axford or the Brewers, but the inability to throw strikes is a much more pressing issue. There are plenty of examples of pitchers, including closers, who have survived and in some cases thrived after a loss in velocity. But Then there’s the issue of pitch selection. Interestingly, Axford has actually thrown more breaking pitches and less fastballs in 2013 than ever before: only 57.6% of pitches thrown by Axford this season have been fastballs, and he has thrown 15.1% sliders and a very surprising 27.3% curveballs. This in comparison to 69% fastballs, 9.3% sliders, and 21.7% curveballs in 2011.
So is it the overall lack of control that is to blame? Or is it a dip in velocity that has led to a distrust in his fastball and an unnecessary and ultimately harmful reliance on his secondary stuff, which consists of two breaking pitches that he not only struggles to control, but have both seen a dip in velocity themselves since 2011? At any rate, the three things that have changed most since 2011 are: velocity, walk rate, and the rate at which Axford throws his secondary pitches. Very likely, all three of these issues are closely related, and only Axford knows if the loss in velocity has led to an increase in breaking pitches that he can’t control as well, or if a sudden decision to mix in more secondary pitches has directly affected his overall performance.
At any rate, a revival for Axford will start with fixing his horrible walk rate. It probably isn’t an entirely lost cause, and if he can figure out how to control his breaking pitches better, his still nearly-95 mile per hour fastball won’t be as easy to sit on. If he can’t fix the secondary pitches, however, a straight 95 mph fastball isn’t much of a challenge for big leaguers, and Axford will continue to struggle.