John Axford had faced 34 major league hitters going into the 2010 season, so you would have surprised even the most dedicated Brewers fans if you’d told them he was going to be the team’s closer this year. But Axford, who struck out Derrek Lee to preserve a one-run ninth inning lead last night, is most definitely Milwaukee's stopper.
Yes, Axford, a complete unknown just months ago, is closing games for a team that has all-time saves leader Trevor Hoffman in its bullpen. And no, when Brewers GM Doug Melvin signed Axford two and a half years ago, he was not under the impression that he'd found his next go-to reliever.
“You always have visions of this happening,” Melvin told MLBTR. “But I don’t think we thought that this would happen, that he’d be our closer, especially closing in front of a Hall of Famer. I don’t think anybody had the vision that this would happen.”
Before Axford and his mustache won over Brewers fans, area scout Jay Lapp saw him pitch for the Brantford Red Sox of the Intercounty Baseball League. Back then, the right-hander was a bartender, but not a complete unknown in baseball circles. Axford generated buzz as a 2004 draft prospect, but underwent Tommy John surgery late in 2003. After the operation, the Reds selected him in the 42nd round of the 2005 draft and Axford pitched in the Yankees system in 2007. But in 2008, the Brewers signed him for his promise, not his polish.
“We knew we were getting a guy that had a good live arm, but there were a lot of mechanical issues with him,” Melvin said. “There were some up and down moments and some times when we weren’t sure he was going to throw enough strikes.”
Indeed, Axford had massive problems finding the strike zone in the Yankees system. He pitched at four levels in 2007 and posted an overall walk rate of 6.4 BB/9. Only two major league pitchers have higher walk rates this season: Dontrelle Willis and Oliver Perez have both posted 7.7 BB/9 (min. 40 IP). Those two left-handers have had trouble finding regular playing time this year, but Axford’s walk rates didn’t scare the Brewers away.
“If [pitchers] have good live arms and their walk rates are high, I think you’ve got to be patient,” Melvin said. “One of the toughest things in the game is to be patient.”
Axford has always had a mid-90s fastball and a pair of good breaking pitches. When the Brewers tinkered with his delivery, his walk rate dropped. He walked fewer batters than ever before getting called up to the majors this year and his current MLB walk rate is a career-best 3.1 BB/9.
“Guys with good arms, I say the same thing,” Melvin said. “Their walks can be reduced once they feel comfortable with their deliveries.”
That comfort zone can be evasive, so few relievers have lasting success like Hoffman.
“They can lose it if they don’t stay on top of things, they can lose the delivery, but I think that’s why some pitchers can be good one year and not the next year,” Melvin said.
This season, Axford has a 2.83 ERA with a 50% ground ball rate, 10.8 K/9 and a team-leading 16 saves. Those stats impress the Brewers, but Melvin also enjoys the Hoffman-like demeanor the 27-year-old showed on the mound last night.
“He kept his poise and struck out Derrek Lee and sometimes a young guy like that can really panic, but his composure and poise is very good,” Melvin said.