The Indians have agreed to terms with right-handed reliever John Axford. It's a 1-year deal worth $4.5 million, with another potential $1.75M in incentives, based on the number of games he finishes. He'll serve as the team's closer in 2014, and perhaps beyond, as he's still arbitration-eligible for 2015 and 2016. When Axford was among those non-tenured two weeks ago, he was at the top of my list of new intriguing relief options, and now here he is.
I think the idea of the "proven closer" is often overblown; most good closers are simply good relief pitchers that were given a steady chance to close, not guys with some magical ability to succeed where almost all other MLB arms would fail. Axford has been signed to be the 9th inning guy though, so magical or not, we're going to be seeing a lot of him in important situations.
Here's a look at Axford' production in recent seasons, dating back to 2010, the year he took over as closer for the Brewers:
Axford began the year in Triple-A, posting a 19/5 K/BB ratio in 13.1 innings before being called up to Milwaukee. In his fifth appearance there he was given a save opportunity, which he converted, and from there the job was his. Axford finished the year with 24 saves in 27 opportunities. His K/9 of 11.79 ranked 6th among all MLB relief pitchers. He walked quite a few, (4.19 per 9), but avoided allowing much damage by holding hitters to a .204 batting average and giving up just 1 home run all season.
Axford went from solid to spectacular in his first full season as closer. Batters hit just .212 against him in 73.2 innings (a high total for a closer), and because he improved his BB-rate by more than a walk per 9 innings, opponents' OBP against him was a paltry .276. He tied for the NL lead with 46 saves in 48 chances, struck out 10.51 per 9 innings posted a 1.95 ERA, good for a 202 ERA+, each of which ranked 3rd among all closers. He was also listed on Cy Young and MVP ballots at season's end.
Axford's ERA spiked to 4.67 in 2012, and he blew 9 saves in 45 chances, giving him a very poor 80% save rate. What caused the decline? It wasn't a drop in velocity, as all three of his pitches (fastball, slider, and curveball) maintained their previous speeds. He also saw his strikeout rate climb to 12.07 per 9 IP, 10th-best among all MLB relievers. He had troubled finding the strike zone though, and walked 5.06 per 9 IP, 8th-worst among all MLB relievers. His fastball had the same speed, but not the same effectiveness, and he was hit far harder than in the previous two years, as evidenced by his SLG%-against going from .281 in 2011 to .387 in 2012.
Axford allowed at least 1 run in each of his first four appearances of 2013, a total of 9 runs in 3.1 innings, with 4 HR providing most of the damage. At that point he was removed from the closer's role in Milwaukee. From that point through July 26 though, he posted a 1.60 ERA in 39.1 innings, with peripherals very similar to his 2011 numbers. He had 23 consecutive scoreless appearances at one point. At the end of July though, he hit another rough patch (11 runs in 13 games, with 6 BB and 4 HR), and after clearing waivers, he was dealt to the Cardinals.
In 13 regular season games with St. Louis he put up a 1.74 ERA, with 11 K against 3 BB. He didn't allow any home runs, and ended the regular season with 9 scoreless appearances. He also appeared in 6 postseason games for St. Louis, allowing 1 run in 5.1 innings. Even including the playoffs, his time with the Cardinals is a small sample, but the results were an improvement. It's also worth noting that his .339 BABIP-against for the year was a large step above his .310 career figure, and his HR% on fly ball (17.2%) was far worse than the MLB average for relievers (9.8%), so a bit of his weak run prevention was bad luck.
If you remove those first four games of the year, his ERA for the season drops from 4.02 to 2.92. Obviously any reliever will look much better if you remove four bad games, but perhaps Axford was nursing an injury, or just late to locate his pitches this year. In any event, he was very solid for most of the year, and with his velocity intact, it doesn't seem to me that the tools needed for him to be an effective closer aren't there any more. I also have a lot of confidence in pitching coach Mickey Callaway, whom I believe gives the Indians a better chance of getting solid production out a pitcher than most teams.
Steamer projections for 2014 (available at FanGraphs) have Axford at 9.27 K/9, 3.67 BB/9, and a 3.37 ERA. Those aren't glowing numbers, but Cody Allen is the only other Indians reliever whose projections match them. I'd have been fine with Allen in the closer role, but another bullpen arm was needed either way, and I prefer Axford to Chris Perez in the 9th. Plus, the financial investment being made isn't significant (potentially-better options such as Grant Balfour,Fernando Rodney, and, Joaquin Benoit would each have required a multiyear guarantee) and if this expenditure represents the bulk of additional spending we're going to see this offseason, I think Axford is a solid use for it.