2014 Key Players: John Axford
The fourth player in my 2014 Key Players list is John Axford.
Previous articles focused on Danny Salazar, Yan Gomes, and Michael Bourn. Axford is a bit unique from the others discussed. He’s a reliever, and by the nature of that position, individually it’s a bit of a stretch to call him one of the top five key players for the 2014 Cleveland Indians.
So, why did I choose to put him on this list? I believe that Axford will be the linchpin that will determine the success of the entire Indians bullpen.
Let me elaborate.
Last year the Indians bullpen carried a heavy load (9th in MLB in innings pitched) because pitchers like Scott Kazmir, Ubaldo Jimenez, Zach McAllister, and Danny Salazar were mostly unable to pitch deep into games. In 2014, I don’t expect that to be much different with Corey Kluber, McAllister, and Salazar all penciled into the rotation without a 200 inning season under their belt. Once again, the bullpen is going to need to carry a heavy burden and will be vital to overall health of the team’s pitching staff.
Last year it was Cody Allen, Joe Smith, and Bryan Shaw that effectively bridged the gap from a starting pitcher who may have gone just five or six innings, to the closer. Those three pitched over 200 innings combined, versus just over 300 innings for the rest of the team’s relievers combined. With Smith leaving as a Free Agent, that group has already taken a significant hit. What the team can’t afford is to have to bump Cody Allen or Bryan Shaw out of the roles they’re currently serving to try and fix problems at closer.
That’s where Axford comes in. His job isn’t just to close the door in the ninth inning, but to also help stabilize the rest of the bullpen and allow them to stick in the roles where they are most useful.
I’ll be the first to admit that unless the Indians are getting the 2011 version of John Axford, he’s not likely to be the best reliever in their bullpen. However, I’m a believer that you build a successful bullpen starting with the closer and then move backward. If Axford struggles, every reliever will be affected. That’s not the same for say, Josh Outman, who could struggle without upsetting the roles of the relievers around him. If Axford needs replaced, having to shuffle Cody Allen and Bryan Shaw around will leave those important middle relief and set-up innings to younger, and at this point, unproven arms.
The real question is whether or not Axford is up to the task.
I felt that signing Axford was a fairly shrewd move by the team. They didn’t have to commit much in terms of years or money, they retain the right to keep him through arbitration for the next two years, and most importantly he’s a guy that comes with considerable upside.
Let’s start with the obvious; he should be better than Chris Perez was last year.
Of course, that’s not necessarily hard though after Perez’s meltdown last year. Axford is a proven closer, but one that is coming off two years in which he struggled. The frequently discussed reasoning for those struggles was that he was tipping his pitches. When acquired by the Cardinals at the trade deadline last season, they informed him that he had ‘tells’ that were giving away the identity of his fastball and curveball. The Cardinals had Axford make a few adjustments to close his front shoulder in order to hide his glove from the batter. They also had him vary his pace on the mound to keep hitters off balance and rely more on his fastball.
That fastball is Axford’s bread and butter. It averages right around 95 MPH, and he complements it with a slider and curveball that is especially effective against left-handers. If you dive into the numbers, you’ll notice the effectiveness of Axford’s fastball was down over the last two years. Without any noted drop in velocity, it lends further credence to the fact that hitters knew when the pitch was coming and adjusted accordingly. To try and combat the ineffectiveness of his fastball, Axford began relying on his off-speed pitches more and as such the effectiveness of those pitches diminished without the fastball to set them up.
It’s a vicious cycle.
The key for Axford is to be aggressive with his fastball and mix in his slider sporadically and curveball against left-handers, instead of the other way around. The fastball is his best pitch and he needs to use it to get ahead of hitters. Despite a relatively low walk rate in 2013, Axford struggled to get ahead in the count (career low 53.3% first pitch strikes) and ended up having to offer up a fastball that hitters knew was coming – leading to a career high line drive rate of 24.2%.
The take away from all of this is that the problems he’s encountered over the last two years are issues that he’s been working to correct for a while now. The changes that the Cardinals worked on with him seemed to work, as Axford responded with a 1.69 ERA in 19 appearances (including postseason). Additionally, this spring Axford has only given up one run in six innings, while striking out eight.
He seems poised for a much better year than the two previous.
If Axford is effective, the Indians are going to have another great bullpen this season. That bullpen will be a weapon for them to mask inconsistency or injury from their starting rotation, squeak out wins in close games, or give the offense a chance to come back from an early deficit. With the importance of having an effective bullpen that can again eat up a large amount of innings, and Axford’s importance in keeping that bullpen stabilized, he becomes one of the team’s key players to watch in 2014.