New Indians closer John Axford was tipping his pitches while playing for the Brewers, something he learned about on his first day with the Cardinals, after a trade at the end of last August. According to Axford, after he made "one little adjustment" in his delivery, he saw far better results than he'd been seeing for almost two years in Milwaukee.
This could be outstanding news for the Indians, because if Axford's results form his time in St. Louis are what we're going to get from him, he's going to be well worth the $4.5 to 6.25 million the Tribe will pay him in 2014. Here are Axford's numbers from the last three years:
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com
As you can see, Axford was one of the best closers in baseball in 2011, but his home runs and walks both spiked in 2012. He continued to struggle through most of 2013, but after arriving in St. Louis, he pitched well (including 5.2 strong innings in the postseason, not included above).
If that success was merely a matter of him having a few good weeks, in a small sample of appearances, then his previous year and a half in Milwaukee should be weighed more heavily, but if what Axford is saying is true, and an adjustment to his delivery is to be credited with his late-season success, than the Indians might have gotten a bargain.
It's entirely clear when the Cardinals picked up on whatever signals Axford was giving off, but in 2011, St. Louis was dominated by him, with a team batting line of .083/.120/.125 in 7 innings, all without scoring a run. It was more of the same in that season's NLCS, when Axford pitched 3 more shutout frames. All told, Axford struck out 10 while walking just 1 against St. Louis that year.
2012 was a different story though, as St. Louis roughed Axford up for 8 runs in 6 innings, using 9 walks to help their cause.
That seems like strong support for the pitch-tipping narrative, but it should also be pointed out that while Axford struggled again with Milwaukee in 2013, he did well against St. Louis, allowing just 1 run in 7.2 innings (though he did issue 5 walks and allow 7 hits, so perhaps he was just lucky in the timing/sequence of things).
We also don't know how many teams besides the Cardinals were picking up on whatever tells Axford had, but it would take at least a couple more to really explain much of the difference in his numbers between 2011 and the last couple years.
If nothing else though, Axford believes he's made an important adjustment, and his regained a lot of his former confidence. I won't go into the 2014 season expecting to see the Axford who dominated hitters in 2011, but I do expect we're going to see someone better than his overall numbers from 2012 and 2013 would suggest.