The Milwaukee Brewers outlasted the Phillies in Citizen Bank Park tonight, but it proved to be another shaky night for one Mr. John Axford. When looking for something other than outs and runs to write about, I generally cruise through my various social networking sites to get the “Man on the Street” view of the team. Right now the name of that street would be something like “Replace Axford Ave.”
Is this reactionary thinking or do we really have a closing problem?
Here’s the thing: I try to remove myself from emotional writing, and pretend – however briefly – that I am not a fan when I work on a post. Sometimes, it’s easier than others. But today, I saw a few facebook posts/tweets/what-have-you that recommended putting both Mitch Stetter and LaTroy Hawkins (upon his return) into the closing spot. I also saw a few worse remarks. It struck me as completely ridiculous logic and perhaps a misunderstanding of what exactly a pitcher does.
We will address the pitcher’s job first. A lot is made of ERA (Earned Run Average) when discussing pitchers. An earned run is determined simply by a run scored without the aid of an error. Simple enough, right? The problem is, once the ball is put in play, it really isn’t the pitcher’s responsibility anymore. Anyone who has read Bill James or other followers of the Sabermetric system will probably see where I’m going with this, but in truth the only thing a pitcher can do is try to strike out every single batter, and when the inevitable contact comes hope it isn’t a home run. As soon as bat meets ball, the outcome is completely out of the pitcher’s hands.
Now let’s apply that thinking to what happened tonight in Axford’s performance. Right off the bat I will say that Axford’s command was completely off tonight, and that was and will remain a point of concern in the coming months and should not be ignored. But go back to what happened during the beginning of his performance. First was the obvious walk of Ruiz, and then the sacrifice bunt to move Ruiz to second base. Axford’s only choice on the play was first and it was either a great piece of hitting or complete luck – most likely a combination of the two.
Pete Orr then comes to bat and hits a 95mph fastball into left field. Both Ryan Braun and Carlos Gomez were caught out of position on the play in the deep fields at Citizen Bank Park, and Braun made his superman throw into the audience from left field. Better positioning, an easier throw – or even a throw to the infield – keeps Ruiz on base at lbest, and gets an out at worst. After that came a strike out, a walk, and a pop up for a total of nothing but men left on base in a must-win situation for the Phillies. I would argue it was more like bad luck then a poor performance. It’s easy to pick on the closer – after all that is his job, but he is not the only one with the responsibility for a win. In fact, he might have less responsibility than the defenders in the field.
As for the other bone I have to pick with Brewers fans, let’s face it – John Axford is our best bet at closer. Never mind the fact that the closer will face the bottom of the order nine times out of ten, Axford still has better numbers than anyone else I would be willing to put in there this season. He has five strikeouts in 5.1 Innings of play in 2011, and in his short career opponents are only hitting .211 against him. In comparison, batters hit .282 against LaTroy Hawkins, who also has a career save percentage of 62% to Axford’s 84%. Stetter has 84 K’s to Axford’s 90 – in 12 more innings of play.
It may be the fact that I am a huge fan of John Axford and his magical mustache, but I really can’t help but think he is being made a scapegoat of situations that are largely out of his control. He does have command problems, and he tends to walk more batters than I am completely comfortable with, but he has three good pitches and can strikeout anyone in the league when he can get guys to chase him. He’s the last place we need to look right now. We have a problem leaving men on base (creating more comfortable leads) and we have problems making plays in the field (backing up the pitcher). For some reason, these things never come into consideration when a closer is in the game.
I guess what I’m trying to say is relax, Milwaukee. We have a closer, and a damn good one in my opinion. Regardless, we got the win tonight and if Axford came in tomorrow with a one-run lead, I would still not be worried.