By: Nick Ashbourne
After two years of being the consummate journeyman John Axford is not only closing games again, but making it look easy.
The Simcoe, Ont. native has recorded 12 saves in 12 opportunities in a Rockies uniform with a shiny 1.31 ERA to his name, having only allowed an earned run in two of his 22 appearances.
These numbers are somehow simultaneously surprising and completely believable. Axford has demonstrated the ability to be a shutdown reliever before and at 32 he's hardly over the hill.
However, he's also a guy who has now pitched for five teams in three years and had to sign a minor-league deal in the off season, albeit one with a $2.6 million base salary if he made the Rockies' roster.
Not only did he make the team, he seized the opportunity to take the top bullpen role after LaTroy Hawkins and Adam Ottavino were plagued with injuries and ineffectiveness. Since then he hasn't looked back.
The pertinent question seems to be how Axford managed this. Although he was a top-flight closer as recently as 2011, in 2012 he struggled with an ugly 4.67 ERA despite managing to save 36 games.
Between 2013 and 2014 Axford pitched four teams adequately, but aside from a brief run with the Cardinals at the end of 2013 he never looked like the special talent he'd been. His numbers were fine, but unimpressive.
Those numbers suggested that Axford was still a useful guy, but his problems with control and the long ball seemed to indicate he wasn't fit for high-leverage relief any more. However, the Rockies saw something else.
They saw a pitcher whose stuff hadn't deserted him despite his struggles with command. As Axford has located the ball better this season he has cut down on his walks and his strong repertoire has played up.
One of the things that makes Axford a special reliever is that he has three strikeout pitches: a fastball that averages 95.5 mph, a looping curveball, and a late-breaking slider.
He uses his fastball to get hitters to chase above the strike zone, and with his velocity he can get it by even excellent contact hitters like Dee Gordon of the Miami Marlins.
His curveball is best deployed to cross up hitters who are gearing up for the fastball.
In this example Dodgers catcher Yasmani Grandal simply gives up on the pitch and knows immediately that he's seen strike three.
Perhaps his best pitch for getting strike three is his slider. Even when he misses his spot with it the movement can still be enough to finish off hitters, like hard-hitting outfielder Scott Van Slyke.
Even greater command of his three-pronged arsenal isn't enough to explain how Axford has thrived plying his trade in the harshest pitching conditions on planet Earth, aka Coors Field, where he has only allowed one home run all season.
Part of it is probably luck. It's hard to fight the thin air forever and he has only allowed 6.7% of fly balls against him to leave the park, a number that is likely to go up. Even so, there is one important thing he's doing to prevent homers: not allowing opposing hitters to put the ball in the air.
Among relievers with at least 20 innings pitched Axford 60.7% ground ball rate ranks 13th in baseball, well above his career rate of 48.8%. He has clearly made a real effort to induce more balls and it's worked to perfection. The picture below shows all balls in play against Axford this year with the ground balls appearing as purple dots.
This picture is covered in purple, and even the majority of the fly balls don't look particularly dangerous.
Pitching for the Rockies Axford is unlikely to keep his ERA below two all season, but he's doing the right things to succeed under tough conditions. After a couple of up-and-down years the Canadian right-hander finally looks like his old self.
He looks like a closer.