Indians

The Bullpen Tranche and John Axford’s New Normal

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This is probably an over-simplification, but I generally put pitchers into something like three categories: (1) I trust that guy; (2) that guy is moderately pitchable and occasionally good, though his flaws can scare me; and (3) that guy is utterly unpitchable in any situation that may determine the outcome of the game.

The trick, of course, is to get as many of the first guys as you can, fill in with the second category on the cheap, and if you need one or two of the third group to eat innings in blowouts, well, ok.  After all, David Huff needs to eat too!

Here’s how I see the Indians staff this morning: 

        TrustworthyModerately Pitchable  Entirely Unpitchable
Corey KluberJustin MastersonJohn Axford
Bryan ShawZach McAllisterRyan Raburn*
Cody AllenJosh Tomlin 
 Scott Atchinson 
 Josh Outman 
 Mark Rzepcynski 
 Carlos Carrasco 
 Trevor Bauer 
 Kyle Crockett 
*This, despite his sterling FIP of 1.05 and a dominant K% of 33.3

You may disagree with me on a few of these—I struggled with whether I completely trust Cody Allen and his straight-as-an-arrow fastball myself—but my first point is that our staff largely comprises guys who have to work around some fairly obvious flaws.  Justin Masterson will always struggle to some degree with platoon issues and mechanics.  Josh Tomlin doesn’t miss enough bats.  Carlos Carrasco is a delicate flower.  Trevor Bauer is learning on the fly (Salazar belongs here too).

Every single one of these mid-tier guys can win you a game and look wonderful doing it, but each can also melt down and cost you a game.  What fans of average teams generally mean when they claim their team has a chance at the beginning of the season has largely to do with this second group doing more good than harm.  If only Carrasco reaches his potential….What if Masterson has one of his good years….Josh Outman could be the LOOGY Hagadone never turned into….We should also point out that this is where hope typically meets the rocky and unforgiving shores of reality.

But the second point has to do with John Axford.  I really like John Axford.  He seems super nice and smart—funny and ebullient and perhaps particularly well-suited from an emotional perspective to shoulder the closer’s role.  Further, I think we’d have fun talking about movies or politics or mustaches.  I hope Craig books him on the podcast and they drink wine together and laugh and laugh about the absurdities of the human condition.

But John Axford has been arguably the worst relief pitcher in baseball this season, and I’m not really exaggerating all that much.  There are 159 “qualified” relief pitchers in MLB so far this season.  Here’s where Axford rates in some key performance metrics, some context-independent and some not:

 RankPercentile
BB%156th98th
K/BB149th94th
FIP154th97th
WHIP149th94th
WPA158th99th
WAR154th97th
Ball%152nd96th
BBs158th99th
Pitches/IP156th98th

Axford can’t throw strikes.  He now has issued 17 walks in 18.1 innings.  That is alarming.  It’s alarming because opposing teams are getting free baserunners and because it puts strain on an already bad defense and because we already have too many question marks in the bullpen and because he was supposed to be an answer not another problem.

I’m not sure where we go from here.  It’s clear to me that both Bryan Shaw and Cody Allen are—if not perfect pitchers—then at least our best options.  But I’d argue that literally every pitcher on our roster is a better option than Axford right now.  So we just have to wait until that’s not true any longer, and hope that he doesn’t cost us many more games while he and Calloway work to figure this out.

Whether they can fix him or not is the question.  And we have some reason to believe that things will get better.  For his career, Axford has a BB% rate of 11.1%—certainly not good, but a far cry from his 19.3% this season and entirely reasonable if he’s striking out 20% of the batters he’s facing.  Just last year, he managed a walk-rate below 10%.

On the other hand, every time in his past that his walk numbers have started to get out of control, his strikeout numbers went up too, miraculously saving him from the sort of season he’s enduring right now.  But that’s easier to accomplish when your fastball sits in the high 90s.  But for the first time in his Big League career, Axford’s fastball is averaging less than 95 mph, at only 93.9.

So while we can cross our fingers and hope Magic Mickey can put him back together again, there are some glaring signs that this may just be what happens when guys who never had much command lose their velocity and age.  I’m not sure that I’ll ever trust Axford in high leverage situation again, but if things continue the way they’re heading, I’m starting to think we might not find out.

(Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)