Our ranking of the Top 50 Milwaukee Brewers of the 2010s rolls on as we come to No. 45 on the countdown.
The No. 45 spot on our top Milwaukee Brewers of the decade list brings us back to the bullpen. It also gives us our second closer in the countdown.
How We Ranked Them
We created an initial list of the top players by combining their Fangraphs Total WAR from each year they were on the Brewers and ranking them from highest to lowest.
However, this wasn’t going to be a list of simply who had the highest WAR while they were here and that’s it. So we adjusted the list based on postseason contributions, overall quality of player, and general importance to the franchise.
Our list continues.
45. RHP John Axford
Mustachioed closers generally go over well in Milwaukee (see: Rollie Fingers) and Canadian-born John Axford was no exception. The “Ax Man” followed in the footsteps of Hall of Famer Trevor Hoffman at the beginning of the decade to become one of the most successful closers in Brewers history.
Total WAR: 2.3
The story goes that after being drafted twice, bouncing around the Yankees minor league system and then being released, and then finding himself briefly out of baseball and selling cell phones in Canada, the Brewers signed Axford as a minor league free agent in 2008. The righty worked his way up through Milwaukee’s farm system, made a few appearances as a September call up in 2009, and then was called to the majors for good in 2010.
Axford had just seven saves in his minors career prior to 2010 and one more as a major leaguer during his 2009 call up. Yet with Hoffman reaching the end of his career and blowing four saves in the first month of the 2010 season, Axford was called up and asked to step into the closer’s role.
And step into a closer’s role is exactly what he did. Axford tallied 24 saves over 50 games in that first season, compiling a 2.48 ERA and a 1.19 WHIP. He struck out batters at a rate of 11.8 strikeouts per nine innings.
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Though his WAR dipped a tiny bit the next year, 2011 was arguably Axford’s best year as a Brewer. After blowing two of his first five save attempts, he went on to post 43 consecutive saves, eventually running the total up to 49 the following year, which shattered the previous record of 26 set by Doug Jones.
Later that year, in a late-season game against the Marlins, Axford racked up his 45th save, breaking the single season record for saves that was set by Francisco Cordero in 2007. He’d finish 2011 with 46 saves, which led the league that season, the NL Rolaids Relief Man award for league’s best closer, and a ninth-place finish in the NL Cy Young voting. Not to mention a shiny 1.95 ERA and 1.14 WHIP.
Axford also made appearances in six games during the Brewers’ 2011 postseason run, tallying saves in three of six games and striking out nine. He did blow one save in game five of the NLDS against the Diamondbacks, but escaped the inning with a tie still intact and setting up for the dramatic walk-off series win, not to mention a win on record for Axford, that most Brewers fans surely remember.
The rest of Axford’s tenure with the Brewers was rocky after that season. He did compile 35 saves in 2012, but his ERA and WHIP ballooned to 4.67 and 1.44, respectively and he blew nine saves, though his 12.1 strikeouts per nine innings was coincidentally the highest of his career.
Axford was removed from the closer role in favor of fellow Canadian Jim Henderson in 2013. After 62 games and a 4.45 ERA, Axford was traded to the Cardinals in a deal that netted the Brewers pitcher Michael Blazek. Axford finished his Milwaukee Brewers career with 106 saves, second all time behind Dan Plesac.
Axford would go on to pitch for seven teams between 2013 with the Cardinals and five appearances with the Dodgers in 2018. Though he signed a minor league contract this year with the Blue Jays, he was injured early and didn’t appear in any major league games in 2019.
Milwaukee Brewers fans may have mixed memories of Axford based on how his tenure with the Brewers came to a close. But the numbers show that he was easily one of the team’s top closers of the decade. Without his contributions in 2011, you could argue that one of the franchise’s few postseason berths would have been much harder to come by.
Our countdown list will continue tomorrow with numbers 44 and 43 of the decade.