The 10 Brewers Critical to 2011 Success: #7, John Axford

The Man. The Stache. The Legend.

In the time leading up to the start of spring training, I’ve decided to make a countdown of the 10 Brewers that I believe are most critical to their success in the 2011 season. It continues today with number 7.

To find the reason why I have chosen John Axford as the seventh most important Brewer to next year’s team, look no further than early last season. Trevor Hoffman, coming off of a stellar 2009 campaign, struggled horribly in April and May, costing the team several games (five blown saves – four of which led to losses – and a 13.15 ERA through May 18). Hoffman’s struggles had a profound effect on the team’s morale and momentum. When the Brewers finally did remove Hoffman from the closer role on the aforementioned May 18th, they were eight games into a nine game losing streak, sported a 15-24 record, and even though there were more than 100 games to play, they never recovered and were never major players in the division race.

Now, you can’t blame all of the Brewers struggles last year on Trevor Hoffman. The rest of the pitching staff pitched in heartily. However, if Hoffman hadn’t blown saves in those four games that the Brewers lost, Milwaukee would have been at least 19-20, and probably better, as there is, in my opinion, no bigger momentum killer than a ninth inning loss when you have the lead.

But we aren’t here to talk about Trevor Hoffman. We’re here to talk about John Axford. Less than a week after Hoffman was removed from the closer role, Axford entered the game in the ninth inning and, despite giving up a run, picked up his second career save and first of the season. Axford would save another 23 games in 2010, finishing the season 8-2 with a 2.48 ERA, 11.8 K/9, and several multi-inning saves. More importantly, he (along with Zach Braddock and Kameron Loe) contributed some desperately needed stability to the Milwaukee bullpen. Quite simply, Axford was spectacular for the Crew in 2010.

But I’m worried.

Milwaukee seems to have a history (at least recently) of finding scrap heap players and turning them in to respectable closers, only to see them fall back to Earth later on. Let’s have a look at the last few players to lead the Brewers in saves.

  • In 2009, I mentioned that Trevor Hoffman had a fantastic season for Milwaukee, and he sure did. 37 saves in 41 chances, just .3 HR/9, 48 Ks to just 14 BB, an ERA of 1.83, and an All Star appearnce. However, the season before, his last in San Diego, he had shown signs of regression. His season ERA was 3.77, and even though his K/9 and BB/9 numbers were actually better than in 2007, he gave up the most home runs he had surrendered since 2001. The Padres were also equipped with a closer-in-waiting, Heath Bell, and decided they could let Hoffman go. He was by no means a useless player in 2008, but he was thought to be declining, and Milwaukee successfully squeezed another year out of him.
  • In 2008, the Brewers saves leader was the immortal Salomon Torres. After Eric Gagne proved to be a complete bust early in the season, they switched to Torres and saw him successfully save 28/35 games, while sporting a 3.49 ERA. Torres’ peripheral numbers were nothing to call home about, but he had never saved more than 12 games in a season before. Torres had been a serviceable reliever for Pittsburgh, but no one had expected him to be the closer on a team that made the playoffs. The following season, Torres retired, leading to the Brewers signing of Hoffman.
  • For the second half of 2006 and all of 2007, the Brewers enjoyed the services of Francisco Cordero. After struggling in the first half of 2006 with Texas, Cordero came over to Milwaukee in the Carlos Lee trade and was lights out for the rest of the season, converting 16 saves in 18 chances with a 1.69 ERA and an ERA+ through the roof at 272. In his only full season with Milwaukee in 2007, Cordero converted on 44/51 saves, had a 2.98 ERA, and made the All Star team. Cordero’s 44 saves are still a Brewers record. After the ’07 season, Cordero signed as a free agent with the Cincinnati Reds, and since then has picked up 113 saves vs. 18 blown saves. Cordero is the only Brewer of the last ten years (going back to Bob Wickman in 2000) to find success as a closer after leaving the team.
  • Now, the last guy I will look at: the Brewers closer of 2005 and the first half of 2006, Derrick Turnbow. Turnbow came out of nowhere to win over the hearts and minds of the Milwaukee faithful with his wild hair and 98 MPH fastball in 2005, having a stellar season that saw him go 7-1 with a 1.74 ERA and then-franchise-record 39 saves. The following season, Turnbow’s control disappeared, his walk totals went through the roof (he finished the year with 6.23 BB/9, after having only 3.21 BB/9 in ’05), and after blowing eight saves in 32 chances, Milwaukee traded for Francisco Cordero.

Derrick Turnbow, throwing really hard.

So, relating all of that to John Axford. Turnbow is the main reason I worry about him. Turnbow was 27 the year he saved 39 games for the Brewers, and he had never had any extended major league success before that season. Axford was 27 last year when he broke out with Milwaukee, and he had only 7 major league appearances before 2010. Axford was a good, but not great, major league pitcher. He never appeared at the top of any Brewer prospect lists. In fact, on the Brewers top 20 prospect list for 2009 compiled by John Sickles, he is nowhere to be found – not even in the 15 additional “others” listed at the bottom.  On the top 20 list for 2010, Axford makes it into the “others,” but doesn’t crack the top 20.

Axford, like Turnbow, throws his fastball hard, and as recently as the 2009 season at AAA had over 5 BB/9. Turnbow had an epic loss of control after his one good season, as I mentioned above. I’ve heard a lot of people say that “Axford can’t be Turnbow, because the Ax has got a good breaking pitch. Turnbow never had that.” This is true. Axford’s slider was 6.8 runs above average and his curveball was 2.1 above average last season, according to FanGraphs. In Turnbow’s 2005 season, his second best pitch was his curveball, which was only 1.4 runs above average, and he threw his fastball 76.9 percent of the time (compared with Axford’s 65 percent in 2010).

I sincerely hope that John Axford is able to overcome the Brewers mini-curse when it comes to closers. Axford is obviously an extremely likable guy, and his openness to fans via twitter and facebook is refreshing. He pitched excellently last season, and I really hope that that is the case again this year. After seeing what a bad closer can do to a team, the Brewers will need him.


2 Responses

  1. […] hope that they both avoid a sophomore slump (I’ve already detailed my concerns about Axford here). Kameron Loe was great last year but he has struggled to maintain consistent major league success. […]

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