Milwaukee Brewers: Breaking Down John Axford's Regression This Season

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Milwaukee Brewers: Breaking Down John Axford's Regression This Season
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Upon entering the Milwaukee Brewers’ organization and permanently transforming himself from starter to reliever in 2008, John Axford has garnered a reputation for being one of—if not the–best closers in all of Major League Baseball.

Utilizing his exceptionally effective three-pitch mix of a mid to high-90s four-seam fastball, power curveball and swing-and-miss inducing slider, the 29-year-old managed to successfully close the door in a staggering 93 percent of his save opportunities (70-for-75), from the midway point in the 2010 season through the 2011 regular season. During that same time span, Axford also won 10 of 14 decisions, posted a 2.14 ERA (2.27 FIP, 2.82 xFIP) and 1.16 WHIP, held batters to a .209 batting average and struck out 11.1 batters per nine innings pitched. For what it’s worth, the Ontario, Canada native accounted for exactly 3.9 wins above a replacement-level player in that time frame.

Given how admirably Axford has performed in each of his last two seasons, the average baseball fan would expect him to perform as well as, or possibly, even better his following season. But as just about any Brewers fan would tell you, that simply hasn’t been the case.

As the 2012 All-Star break inches closer, and games only continue to become more important, one could make the case that the Prince Fielder-less Brewers have managed to tread water in the NL Central divisional race not because of their all-world closer, but in spite of him. In 29 appearances, Axford has won just one of four decisions, and carries a repulsive 5.60 ERA (3.67 FIP, 3.36 xFIP) and 1.57 WHIP, walking nearly six batters per nine innings pitched while converting just 12 saves in 16 opportunities. The only positive that can be taken away from Axford’s performance this season would have to be his strikeout capacity, which has increased from 10.5 K/9 last season to 12.5 K/9 so far in his current campaign.

 

However, Axford’s statistical regressions on the bump extend well beyond the often overemphasized rudimentary statistics. If you were to take a look at what hitters have done against him this season compared to 2011, you’d quickly find more areas for concern. The following table (statistics provided by Fan Graphs) delineates those regressions.

Taking a look at this table, it’s easy to see that batters have had much more success against Axford’s stuff this season, compared to last season. Save for the depression in his fly-ball rate and subsequent improvement in his ground-ball to fly-ball ratio, the numbers clearly suggest that batters are, well, hitting his pitches at a much more frequent rate. The two biggest areas of concern presented by the table should be the spike in his line-drive rate and his perplexing infield fly-ball rate.

A line-drive rate this high is concerning, because it says that the pitcher—Axford, in this case—is leaving the ball over the plate and in the strike zone too frequently. The league average for line-drive rates, according to Fan Graphs, is 20 percent, which Axford is clearly well above. His infield fly-ball rate of 0.0 percent also falls well below the league average of 10 percent. Generally speaking, a high infield fly-ball rate says that hitters aren’t making good contact with the ball, which often shows that a pitcher has great command of his pitches or that his offerings have great, late-breaking movement.

 

Of course, what makes Axford’s statistical decline so difficult to understand—this is where it gets a bit confusing—is that hitters are actually putting the ball in play at a lower overall rate this season than in 2011.

According to FanGraphs, hitters have garnered a contact rate of 75 percent off Axford this season, compared to a contact rate of 77.3 percent last season. More specifically, each of his pitches has been put in play less frequently than last season.

The chart below (provided by Texas Leaguers) is a  breakdown of Axford’s in-play rates from last season.

Type

Count

Selection

In Play

FF (4-seam fastball)

854

69.2%

16.3%

CU (curveball)

216

17.5%

11.6%

SL (slider)

164

13.3%

17.7%


Now, here’s this season.

Type

Count

Selection

In Play

FF (4-seam fastball)

421

72.5%

13.5%

CU (curveball)

114

19.6%

9.6%

SL (slider)

46

7.9%

10.9%

While there isn’t an overwhelming discrepancy between his in-play rates from last season and those from this season, these tables are proof that Axford has actually been better this season than last, to some degree. As you can see, he’s become more dependent on his fastball, compared to last season, and has consequently used his slider less often.

Whether the obvious decrease in his slider usage is due of a lack of confidence, or is completely purposeless, will be determined at a later date. However, there’s no denying that something’s affected him. For a closer of Axford's caliber, having the confidence to throw any of his pitches whenever needed is critical. So far, it looks like he hasn't had that confidence.  

Statistics aside, Axford has clearly labored through the first couple months of the season. Most of his struggles have come from the fact that he’s leaving the ball in the strike zone at a much more frequent rate, and that has consequently worked against him, as hitters continue to put the ball in play with solid, line-drive contact.

Not to say that Axford isn’t the pitcher he was a year ago, but he sure hasn’t looked the same. Needless to say, the Brewers will need him at his very best if they have any intention of returning to postseason action.


Alec Dopp covers the Milwaukee Brewers as a featured columnist at Bleacher Report.  Follow him on Twitter @alecdopp and read his blog, Brewers Rumors.

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