Flaw fixed, Axford ready to prove himself with Tribe
New Cleveland closer learned he was tipping pitches when he joined Cardinals
GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- John Axford understands that there is nothing he can do about the back of his baseball card. The damage done in his first four appearances for the Brewers last year is irreversible, but the story of Axford's season was not told in that small sample of innings.
Yes, Axford lost velocity and then lost his role as Milwaukee's closer amidst the early-April disaster that skewed the rest of his season line. Once the right-hander found his footing, though, he regained pitch speed and turned in a solid campaign, especially after being traded to the Cardinals at the end of August.
Cleveland is looking at things from that perspective as it gives Axford the chance to rekindle his career as one of baseball's top closers.
"He's not a reclamation project," Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway said. "He pitched pretty good last year overall."
Axford still cringes a little when those first four outings are mentioned.
Nine runs. Nine hits. Four home runs.
"It's still tough to try to remember and think about now," he said.
Axford's current situation has surely eased the remaining sting. The Indians looked beyond the pitcher's overall line and decided he was worth investing in with a one-year, $4.5 million contract that could inflate to $6.25 million through incentives. Cleveland parted ways with former closer Chris Perez at the start of the winter and signed Axford on Dec. 19 to take over the job.
Suiting up for Indians manager Terry Francona and playing for a contending club were elements that made Axford comfortable with the idea of coming to Cleveland. As for any confidence lost in the early portion of last season, Axford recovered it through his performance down the stretch with St. Louis, which let him in on a little secret.
The Cardinals let Axford know that he had been tipping his pitches for years.
"We pay attention to it a lot," St. Louis pitching coach Derek Lilliquist said. "We pay attention to it, not only our own pitchers, but we also watch other pitchers and pay attention to it. He was at one point a 40-save guy and did all these great things and then for whatever reason, things went the other way for him. But we felt like we had a pretty good feel of what guys were seeing and went from there."
When Axford was informed of his mechanical flaw -- one that gave hitters a head's up on what pitch was coming -- it was the first he'd heard of it. The righty went back and looked at video from previous years and, sure enough, it was right there in front of him all along. Axford will not divulge the details, and Lilliquist also chose not to delve into specifics.
Axford made the adjustment, which took some getting used to over the final month of the season, and posted a 1.69 ERA in 16 innings with St. Louis between the regular season and playoffs.
"It's definitely good to understand and know what you've been doing out there on the mound," Axford said, "especially from a team that's been scouting you for a while. Whether it was the actual factor of things working out in St. Louis or not, it's definitely good knowing that something like that was there and it's been there for years."
When the smoke cleared on Axford's 2013 season, he had a 4.02 ERA with 65 strikeouts and 26 walks in 65 innings in the regular season. Callaway was quick to note, however, that Axford had a 2.81 ERA to go along with 70 strikeouts in the 77 games (67 1/3 innings) that followed his first four games of the season. The numbers cited by Callaway included Axford's showing in the playoffs with St. Louis.
In the World Series against the Red Sox, Axford gave the Cardinals two scoreless appearances.
Lilliquist was asked if Axford looked like his former self down the stretch with St. Louis.
"Absolutely. Yes, he did," said the Cardinals' pitching coach.
Cleveland also took note of the fact that Axford's pitch velocity was around 95-96 mph on average last year for his fastball, which was in the same range during 2011 (his best season in Milwaukee). In that tour three years ago, the lanky right-hander had a 1.95 ERA and 46 saves in 74 games. Axford had 105 saves in a three-year span before losing his closing role early last season.
"I think he's excited about the chance to take it and run with it," Francona said of giving Axford a shot at closing again. "That's what we want him to do. He's fully aware that we'd like him to grab this and solidify it. We had other guys we thought could do it."
Heading into last season, Axford was dealing with diminished velocity, but he blames taking too aggressive an approach to his preseason while trying to get ready to play for Team Canada in the World Baseball Classic. After the Classic, the righty was around 91-92 mph in spring games, and then he sat around 92-94 in his first handful of outings in April.
Axford's power fastball went missing and his trap-door curveball became hittable.
Two of the four homers allowed by the closer in his first four games came on the breaking ball.
"Those four games, it just didn't feel like that was me out there on the mound," Axford said. "It doesn't feel like that's the way I should've been pitching or the way I have pitched in the past. And it was tough to try to take on the questions that I was taking on and trying to answer them truthfully and honestly, because I really didn't know what was going on."
Axford is in a much better place as he preps for this season with the Tribe.
"I really want to take hold of this and run away with it the best I can," Axford said. "I know that I can do it. I think I was proving that last year, just not in a closer's role. There were certain spots in certain games where I felt like myself. And that was most of the year.
"Maybe what I need right now is to step back up with a new organization and prove myself to everyone here, not only to the guys on the team, the organization and the coaching staff, but to the fans and the city as well. I think I can embrace that."