“You know the man could blow an educated axe”

By Anthony Castrovince/MLB.com
On Twitter: @Castrovince

We talked – well, OK, I talked – a little bit yesterday about the John Axford signing, which not only allowed the Indians to keep Cody Allen in a lower-profile role but also, potentially, suppresses Allen’s eventual arbitration worth.

I like the Axford signing. As I’ve written here, the importance of “proven closers” is drastically overstated, and, as the Indians proved with the Kerry Wood signing some years back, it is all-too-easy to waste your money on the ninth inning.

But in today’s climate, a $4.5 million investment in someone who has had success in the role before and who showed drastic improvement at the tail end of an otherwise rough 2013 is a worthwhile move, particularly if it does positively impact your future financial bottom line with a young guy like Allen.

ImageAxford’s a great story — a Canuck who got dumped by the Yankees in 2007 and spent the next couple years selling cell phones and bartending (“I actually made more money bartending than I did playing Minor League baseball,” he told me in 2011). He held an open audition for scouts and, because of a snowstorm, only one showed up. The guy was from the Brewers, and he liked Axford. The Brew Crew signed him, encouraged some mechanical adjustments and, by the end of 2009, was in the big leagues. He was an almost instant hit with fans for his facial hair and Twitter movie reviews. He learned a lot about work ethic and preparation and pacing yourself from the great Trevor Hoffman. And in 2011, Axford was one of the best closers in baseball, on a Brewers club that reached the NLCS.

Well, as so often happens with relievers, the story went a little flat after that. Axford had a 4.67 ERA in 2012, and he had a 4.45 ERA in 62 appearances in 2013 when the Cardinals claimed him off waivers in late August.

All right, so this takes us to the latest twist in the story — one that has been regurgitated several times in recent weeks. As Axford told Paul Hoynes of the Northeast Ohio Media Group, he arrived in St. Louis and was immediately informed by the Cardinals’ coaches that he had been tipping his pitches:

“The fact that their coaching staff knew, that their players knew and that they could point it out and show me on video,” Axford said, “definitely opened my mind, and I realized I needed to change a few things.”

Something must have changed, because Axford had a 1.74 ERA in 13 games for the Cards, and he had a 1.42 ERA with 18 strikeouts against six walks in 12 2/3 innings in October.

But it’s never really that simple, is it? I talked to Brewers GM Doug Melvin about Axford recently, after the National Post first reported the tipping-pitches thing, and this is what he said about it:

“We talked about it with him in May. I saw that article, and it’s funny because the Cardinals hitters never hit Axford.”

It’s true, you know. For all his struggles with the Brewers last season, Axford had a 1.17 ERA in seven appearances against the Cards, who hit .240 with a .663 OPS against him. In his career, Axford limited the Cards to a .204 average and .581 OPS against. The only issue is that he walked 20 batters in 27 2/3 innings.

So you really have to wonder how much of an issue the pitch-tipping was, at least as it pertained to St. Louis. No telling if other teams had picked up on it.

If nothing else, though, at least the Cards were effective in getting Axford to rethink his ways.

“I don’t know what they did to convince him to make the change,” Melvin said. “I had the same question as you: Why didn’t we identify that? But our coaches had identified something in May. Sometimes those things happen.”

Well, I don’t know who or what to believe there, but it is true that sometimes guys need a wake-up call such as a trade before they’re open to new interpretations of what might work for them. Thing is, Axford gave up five home runs in the first week of last season and just six the rest of the way, so his numbers are inherently skewed by his poor start. Over time, he threw more strikes, probably gained more confidence and then was presented with a rival’s scouting report that seemed to open his eyes and helped rebuild his value. Suffice it to say the Indians don’t sign Axford as their closer if he doesn’t finish 2013 the way he did, so, hey, whatever works.

That storyline about tipping pitches, though, strikes me as a little too simplistic, particularly given the statistical evidence against it. Axford is an asset not because he benefited from a Super Secret Scouting Report bestowed upon him by the St. Louis gods but because he routinely hits the mid-90s on the radar gun and, when he’s on, spots his pitches. And guys who can do that and are open to instruction on how to maximize that skill will be successful at this level, more often than not.

“People think you can find closers anywhere,” Melvin said. “Problem is, you may go through five guys to get there. Every team is going to win 60 games, and, out of those 60 games, somebody’s going to save 30 of them. It’s the extra 15-18 saves that are the difference-makers in the tight games.”

Axford has been a difference-maker before, and maybe, with rediscovered confidence, he can be one again. With any luck, the experience with the Cards was the beginning of him reclaiming his status as one of the game’s more effective ninth-inning options.

But a bullpen, ultimately, is only as good as its options and its ability to exploit matchups. The Axford signing isn’t a good one because he overcame his pitch-tipping plight to become the second coming of Mo Rivera. It’s a good signing because $4.5 million is an entirely reasonable sum to buy time for guys like Allen or C.C. Lee (and I still can’t believe that freaking name) or Vinnie Pestano or maybe even Carlos Carrasco to settle into the season without being instantly thrusted and trusted in the ninth.


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