August 26, 2014

The Bullpen Tranche and John Axford’s New Normal

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This is probably an over-simplification, but I generally put pitchers into something like three categories: (1) I trust that guy; (2) that guy is moderately pitchable and occasionally good, though his flaws can scare me; and (3) that guy is utterly unpitchable in any situation that may determine the outcome of the game.

The trick, of course, is to get as many of the first guys as you can, fill in with the second category on the cheap, and if you need one or two of the third group to eat innings in blowouts, well, ok.  After all, David Huff needs to eat too!

Here’s how I see the Indians staff this morning: 

        Trustworthy Moderately Pitchable   Entirely Unpitchable
Corey Kluber Justin Masterson John Axford
Bryan Shaw Zach McAllister Ryan Raburn*
Cody Allen Josh Tomlin  
  Scott Atchinson  
  Josh Outman  
  Mark Rzepcynski  
  Carlos Carrasco  
  Trevor Bauer  
  Kyle Crockett  
*This, despite his sterling FIP of 1.05 and a dominant K% of 33.3

You may disagree with me on a few of these—I struggled with whether I completely trust Cody Allen and his straight-as-an-arrow fastball myself—but my first point is that our staff largely comprises guys who have to work around some fairly obvious flaws.  Justin Masterson will always struggle to some degree with platoon issues and mechanics.  Josh Tomlin doesn’t miss enough bats.  Carlos Carrasco is a delicate flower.  Trevor Bauer is learning on the fly (Salazar belongs here too).

Every single one of these mid-tier guys can win you a game and look wonderful doing it, but each can also melt down and cost you a game.  What fans of average teams generally mean when they claim their team has a chance at the beginning of the season has largely to do with this second group doing more good than harm.  If only Carrasco reaches his potential….What if Masterson has one of his good years….Josh Outman could be the LOOGY Hagadone never turned into….We should also point out that this is where hope typically meets the rocky and unforgiving shores of reality.

But the second point has to do with John Axford.  I really like John Axford.  He seems super nice and smart—funny and ebullient and perhaps particularly well-suited from an emotional perspective to shoulder the closer’s role.  Further, I think we’d have fun talking about movies or politics or mustaches.  I hope Craig books him on the podcast and they drink wine together and laugh and laugh about the absurdities of the human condition.

But John Axford has been arguably the worst relief pitcher in baseball this season, and I’m not really exaggerating all that much.  There are 159 “qualified” relief pitchers in MLB so far this season.  Here’s where Axford rates in some key performance metrics, some context-independent and some not:

  Rank Percentile
BB% 156th 98th
K/BB 149th 94th
FIP 154th 97th
WHIP 149th 94th
WPA 158th 99th
WAR 154th 97th
Ball% 152nd 96th
BBs 158th 99th
Pitches/IP 156th 98th

Axford can’t throw strikes.  He now has issued 17 walks in 18.1 innings.  That is alarming.  It’s alarming because opposing teams are getting free baserunners and because it puts strain on an already bad defense and because we already have too many question marks in the bullpen and because he was supposed to be an answer not another problem.

I’m not sure where we go from here.  It’s clear to me that both Bryan Shaw and Cody Allen are—if not perfect pitchers—then at least our best options.  But I’d argue that literally every pitcher on our roster is a better option than Axford right now.  So we just have to wait until that’s not true any longer, and hope that he doesn’t cost us many more games while he and Calloway work to figure this out.

Whether they can fix him or not is the question.  And we have some reason to believe that things will get better.  For his career, Axford has a BB% rate of 11.1%—certainly not good, but a far cry from his 19.3% this season and entirely reasonable if he’s striking out 20% of the batters he’s facing.  Just last year, he managed a walk-rate below 10%.

On the other hand, every time in his past that his walk numbers have started to get out of control, his strikeout numbers went up too, miraculously saving him from the sort of season he’s enduring right now.  But that’s easier to accomplish when your fastball sits in the high 90s.  But for the first time in his Big League career, Axford’s fastball is averaging less than 95 mph, at only 93.9.

So while we can cross our fingers and hope Magic Mickey can put him back together again, there are some glaring signs that this may just be what happens when guys who never had much command lose their velocity and age.  I’m not sure that I’ll ever trust Axford in high leverage situation again, but if things continue the way they’re heading, I’m starting to think we might not find out.

(Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)

  • Adam Copeland

    I agree that at this point, Axford is “unpitchable” and thus not worthy of a roster spot. As a result, because of some questionable roster management over the last week or so, I think there’s a possibility Axford could end up DFA’d today (as opposed to being optioned out) because the Indians may need to get a Columbus starter up to Cleveland who’s not currently on the 40 man roster.

    As for your, list, I have to disagree on some guys. Here would be mine:

    TRUSTWORTHY
    MODERATELY PITCHABLE
    ENTIRELY UNPITCHABLE

    Corey Kluber
    Josh Tomlin
    Justin Masterson
    John Axford

    Bryan Shaw
    Kyle Crockett

    Ryan Raburn*

    Cody Allen

    Josh Outman
    Carlos Carrasco
    Zach McAllister

    Scott Atchison

    Mark Rzepczynski

    Trevor Bauer

    I don’t think we know enough about Crockett to put him the first category. I’d put Outman in the first category only with respect to him facing lefties, but because Tito seems to use him against all hitters, he goes in the moderate category. McAllister barely makes the cut in the moderate category for me. He’s been extremely bad the last few outings and if he can’t turn it around soon, I’m not sure he can stay in the rotation.

  • matt underwood

    Carrasco trustworthy??!!! – your column has lost all validity.

  • Garry_Owen

    I love that photo. It’s like Tito’s a father that finds his toddler son with a loaded handgun (or grenade?), desperate to get it out of his child’s hands. Like: “How did you get that? Don’t EVER play with this! I can’t believe I left you alone where you could find one.”

  • http://liartownusa.tumblr.com/image/65292876839 a_foreign_film

    perhaps he means “carrasco can be trusted to consistently implode”

  • CB Everett

    Well the good news is that I finally figured out who he reminded me of…the chef from Apocalypse Now. Ok that’s really not the good news, but it’s better than talking about how our closer is about to be DFA’d in May, amiright?!

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    I guess St. Louis was right after all huh?

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    To bad the Indians can’t carry just two SP per game and the rest relievers because their bullpen is being used and abused.

  • mgbode

    for whatever reason, Mickey’s magic seems more effective on starters and only when the weather is warm.

  • mgbode

    is it being Brett Myer’d?
    or Derek Lowe’d?

    Why do we consistently spend a relatively decent amount of our budget on veteran pitchers who suck?

  • CB Everett

    Man you’re right. Dumpster diving for $5M flyers on pitchers has not once panned out.

    The only remote success story I can think of was Kazmir…but that seems to have been an anomaly (and he was more of a scrap heaper than a bargain bin).

  • http://www.waitingfornextyear.com/ Scott @ WFNY

    The HTML for the graph did not transfer as intended. The intended listing is now posted above.

  • mgbode

    yeah, we have had more success with the spaghetti on the wall method (Kazmir and Harang had we kept him).

  • Kevin Huyghe

    I can’t wait to see more of Kyle Crockett… I think he could quickly become the most trustworthy arm in our pen.

  • The Other Tim

    If you have a gimmicky ‘stache, it’s best not to suck at your job, which takes place in public.

  • Dave

    All I can really say about this is to point out 2 numbers.

    John Axford: $4,500,000
    Corey Kluber: $514,000

    And then people wonder why smart folks don’t trust the Tribe management to make good choices when it comes to which players to keep and which players to let go.