Brewers By the (Jersey) Numbers – #59 John Axford

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It. Is. February.

Yes, “Brewers By the (Jersey) Numbers” is a countdown to Brewers Opening Day. We use the numbers worn on Spring Training jerseys though and that starts in February.

It’s February.

We’re 11 days from Pitchers and Catchers officially reporting for the Milwaukee Brewers. Some are already there. Some will be there this week/weekend. The latter sounds like it includes today’s profile subject…

axfordJohn Axford.

Axford, who you can follow on Twitter (@JohnAxford), tweeted out that he was in the midst of his annual rite of passage. Unfortunately those of us who have followed from the beginning know that the Axford family seemingly has an issue every year in getting into the country. Axford is Canadian and lives in Canada in the off-season. He has his passport and everything is in order for his travelling to the good ol’ U.S. of A. His wife has no problems either. The issue in the past has been that Axford’s son (now two kids) were born in America and are therefore American citizens and shouldn’t need paperwork other than their birth certificates…

It’s unnecessarily messy, but I digress.

Let’s get to why you’re really here, talking about Axford’s 2012 and looking ahead to 2013. (If you need a reminder about how we acquired Axford and what his 2011 was like, check out last year’s article here.)

Allow me to put the obvious out there: Axford wasn’t as good in 2012 as he was in 2011. I know it, you know it, he knows it. But you want to be clued in on something else?

Axford wasn’t as bad in 2012 as some would have you believe.

Now to dive into those statements a bit and explain them on the chance that you’re in the group I just described.

Coming off a great 2011 as a group — and an absolutely stellar 2011 by John Axford — there was one thing that everybody was certain of heading into 2012: “The back end of the bullpen is shutdown, awesome, and a legitimate strength of this team.” But a funny thing happened on the way to bullpen door.

Everybody was off at different times throughout the season and, unfortunately, often times bullpen mates were off simultaneously. It didn’t matter if you were a long-time veteran or inexperienced, a specialist or a long man, left-handed or right-handed. If you were in that Brewers bullpen in 2012, you struggled at some point.

I’ll touch on other individuals (if they’re even still in the organization) as their days come up on the schedule but to break down Axford’s season we’ll take it a couple of different directions.

Doug Melvin has stated this winter on more than one occasion that, by month, Axford only really struggled in one month having more than one blown Save where Axford took the loss.  While that is technically true — it was June — Axford also blew multiple Saves in July and all three of those games resulted in team losses even though Axford’s record was only directly dinged once.

So let’s look by month.

  • April: 9 G, 7.2 IP, 0 W, 1 L, 5 SV, 0 BS (blown saves), 4 ER, 13 K, 6 BB, 4.70 ERA for the month
  • May: 12 G, 11.2 IP, 0 W, 1 L, 5 SV, 1 BS (unearned runs cost him, but team still won), 3 ER, 18 K, 5 BB,  2.31 ERA
  • June: 10 G, 10.0 IP, 1 W, 3 L, 3 SV, 3 BS (all team losses), 10 ER, 10 K, 7 BB, 9.00 ERA
  • July: 15 G, 15.1 IP, 2 W, 1 L, 4 SV, 3 BS (all team losses), 8 ER, 17 K, 5 BB, 4.70 ERA
  • August: 12 G, 9.1 IP, 1 W, 1 L, 5 SV, 1 BS (team loss), 6 ER, 13 K, 7 BB, 5.79 ERA
  • September/Oct: 17 G, 15.1 IP, 1 W, 1 L, 13 SV, 1 BS (team loss), 5 ER, 22 K, 9 BB, 2.93 ERA

The struggles are not as simple to encapsulate on a month-by-month snapshot, but it gives a bit of a picture to work off of.  There is more to the struggles than is easily seen above too.

Axford lost his job in mid-July and said at the time that he literally felt like he was “pitching with new mechanics and never threw a curveball before.” This was a problem. When Axford can’t get his curveball over for strikes, hitters are able to sit on his fastball. Axford’s fastball doesn’t have a ton of movement on its own and is set up beautifully when he can mix in the curveball. It’s what makes the high strike so effective for him; hitters think the bottom is dropping out but it stays high and they can’t catch up. Add in Axford’s easy upper-90s heat, and they don’t even come close. But again, that’s only when the breaking stuff is working.

It’s not completely that simple, but you also didn’t click on this link to read 2000 words about a situation that most of us would like to forget.

When asked about the move at the time, Roenicke was blunt. He knew it was the best way to get Axford right. It would allow the reliever to work on his mechanics and confidence in them. Axford was given the full-time closer’s role back after a couple of weeks and was okay in August before getting his groove back in September.

When the Brewers went on their mad dash into playoff contention, it was the offense scoring runs, it was the rotation pitching well with its new pieces, but it was also John Berton Axford harnessing a bit of that 2011 form.

Heading into 2013, Axford is one of possibly only three carry-over bullpen arms. He is entrenched firmly back into the closer’s role entering the year. Getting the ball to him will be an entirely different cast of characters from Opening Day 2012 but between the veteran imports and rookie holdover who didn’t debut until late in the year, the bullpen is once again looking like a strength on paper.

But if recent history has taught us anything at all it’s that “on paper” doesn’t exactly mean a whole heck of a lot.

Statistics are also on paper though and Axford did post the highest K/9 rate of his career (12.07) but also the highest full-season BB/9 in his career. As for hitters being able to sit on his fastball because of the curveball control issues? Axford posted a 1.30 HR/9 rate as well, nearly triple his previous career worst. Another telltale sign that opposing batters were squaring him up was the spike in line drive percentage in 2012 all the way up to 24.0% of batted balls were categorized as liners. That’s a bunch.

One final look at Axford’s pitch selection underscores the problems he was having. Axford threw his fastball 72.9% of the time because he just didn’t have the other pitches the whole season. He’d never gone over 70% before.

Finally and again though the end of the season left this Brewers fan with a renewed sense of optimism in Axford as the man for the closer’s job. As for confidence? Never wavered. Despite what some casual fans would have you believe, Axford is so much  more talented than some flamed out predecessors who have done this job in short bursts for Milwaukee.

Heading in 2013, the back end of the bullpen is covered. As a group, we can be cautiously optimistic together that it’ll stay that way. Should you expect a perfect season? Never. Can you reasonably hope for quality on any given day? Definitely.

We’re 11 days away from P&C when they officially begin to prepare, but 59 days from Opening Day when it all matters.

Miss anyone along the way? Catch up on the Brewers By the (Jersey) Numbers profiles to this point:

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