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St. Louis Cardinals Acquire John Axford from Brewers in Last-Minute Move

A surprise trade just before the postseason rosters firm up leaves the Cardinals with another reliever. The word is that the Brewers got a PTBNL in the trade.


In a day or so, the postseason rosters will be closed to anyone who is not in the Cardinals' system. The Cardinals took advantage of the opportunity by acquiring John Axford, erstwhile closer for the Brewers.

I don't know that I really understand this move, other than as a depth move with some modest upside.

Once upon a time, John Axford was really, really good. He had an excellent 2010 and an astonishing 2011. He's cratered in the past two seasons.

In 2010, Axford had an ERA of 2.48 and saved 24 games; the next year, he had an ERA of 1.95 and saved 47 games. By traditional measures, he was a really good pitcher. Heck, by more advanced measures, he was a really good pitcher, although most folks would have noticed that allowing 2% and 6% of all flyballs over the wall in Miller Park was not likely to continue.

In his good years, he was really good. He walked maybe more guys than you'd like from an elite closer (11.8% in 2010; 8.2% in 2011), but he made up for it with exceptional strikeout rates (31.9% and 28.2%). He notched a 2.13 FIP and a 2.41 FIP those years. Even accounting for his improbably low HR rates, he had very respectable xFIPs (2.79 & 2.85).

The wheels started to come off in 2012, as fly balls started to find their way over the wall in Miller Park. In 2012, he saw 19% of those fly balls leave the park. He kept striking out an outlandish number of batters (30%), but he started walking more (12.6%). A lot of walks and a lot of homers translate to bad results; he finished the year with a 4.76 ERA and a 4.09 FIP. There's a hint of some potential salvation if his home run rates return to normal, in that his xFIP was a very nice 3.29.

2013 was a disaster on every front. His home run per fly ball rate stayed at 19%. His strikeout rate started to fall back to earth (22%). His walks were less frequent than in 2012, but still above average (9.4%). Now he had bad results in the form of a 4.45 ERA and bad peripherals in the form of a 4.75 FIP. Even if his home run rate normalized, he'd only be an okay reliever; he has an only okay 3.66 xFIP.

There's some hope for him. He's gotten so burned on home runs that pitching in the friendlier confines of Busch Stadium should offer some improvement over his numbers in Milwaukee. Maybe the club sees something they can fix.

Did he get scared of throwing strikes, with so many balls leaving the park? His fastball rate has dropped somewhat, dropping from 73% and 69% to 63% this year. He's throwing fewer first-pitch strikes, down from 62% in 2011 to 52% this season. Pitches in the zone have dropped from 52% in 2011 to 46%.

The optimistic view of Axford is that he has maybe learned some bad habits from two seasons of awful outcomes, especially with homers. If the Cardinals can turn him around and convince him to try throwing strikes more confidently, maybe this works out.

But there's also a decent chance that Axford has just lost it. He's had two solid seasons of really bad outcomes and dropping peripherals. He's 30 years old. While his velocity is mostly intact (95.2 mph this season v. 95.5 for his career), the smarter money is probably against him.

His projections reflect this dichotomy of possible outcomes. ZiPS has pretty much thrown in the towel on Axford, projecting a sub-replacement value 4.14 ERA and 3.90 FIP for the rest of the season for him. Steamer, on the other hand, sees a return to his earlier form with a 3.39 ERA and 3.38 FIP projected.

This trade is a bit of throwing stuff against the wall and seeing what sticks. If it works out, I hope Axford will be an asset down the stretch and in the postseason. In case it doesn't, I hope the team doesn't stick him in high-leverage innings immediately.