JOHN AXFORD
RIGHT HANDED PITCHER
Born: April 1, 1983
Height: 6’5″
Weight: 220
Bats: Right
Throws: Right
Signed: Non-drafted free agent, 2006 (Yankees)
How Acquired: Waiver claim (from Indians)
College: Canisius College
Agent: Beverly Hills Sports Council

WTM’S PIRATE PLAYER PROFILES

Axford didn’t exactly take a standard path to the majors.  He was well regarded as a prep prospect, but didn’t sign after being drafted in the 7th round.  He went to Notre Dame, but got derailed by Tommy John surgery, which cost him one year and most of another.  He transferred to Canisius for his last college season, but didn’t pitch well and signed as a non-drafted free agent the next year with the Yankees.  New York released him after just a year and he caught on with Milwaukee.  A year and a half later, he was in the majors.

Axford has generally put up high K rates with a combination of a mid-90s fastball and two breaking balls, the better of which is probably his slider rather than his curve.  He’s had control problems that seem to crop up suddenly and then go away; in a majority of his pro seasons his walk rates have been decent to good, but in a few others they’ve been very high.  He had two outstanding seasons with the Brewers and then his HR/FB rate skyrocketed.  His velocity has varied some, going from an average of about 94 when he first reached the majors, up to 96, then back down to 94.3 with the Indians in 2014.  The changes don’t correlate with his success, though, as his best velocity was in 2012, the year when his HR/FB rate went through the roof.  The Pirates claimed Axford off waivers in mid-August 2014.

2007
A-:  1-1-2, 2.22 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 24.1 IP, 5.5 BB/9, 11.1 K/9
A:  0-3-0, 4.39 ERA, 1.91 WHIP, 26.2 IP, 7.4 BB/9, 7.1 K/9
A+:  0-0-2, 2.38 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 11.1 IP, 5.6 BB/9, 11.9 K/9
AAA:  0-0-0, 13.50 ERA, 4.50 WHIP, 0.2 IP, 13.5 BB/9, 13.5 K/9

The Yankees used Axford at four different levels, including five starts at low A.  The starting gig doesn’t seem to have gone well, but at other levels he showed an ability to miss a lot of bats, although he also had control issues.  Despite that, the Yankees released him after the season and he signed with the Brewers.

2008
A+:  5-10-0, 4.55 ERA, 1.67 WHIP, 95.0 IP, 6.9 BB/9, 8.4 K/9

The Brewers also tried Axford as a starter, 14 times out of 26 games.  He led the Florida State League in walks.

2009
A+:  4-1-0, 1.63 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 27.2 IP, 5.2 BB/9, 14.0 K/9
AA:  0-0-1, 3.52 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 7.2 IP, 3.5 BB/9, 10.6 K/9
AAA:  5-0-0, 3.55 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 33.0 IP, 5.2 BB/9, 10.1 K/9
MLB:  0-0-1, 3.52 ERA, 1.44 WHIP, 7.2 IP, 7.0 BB/9, 10.6 K/9

The Brewers moved Axford to relief for good and he shot up through the system, getting a callup a week into September.  He continued to pile up strikeouts and also had trouble with walks.

2010
AAA:  3-2-2, 2.02 ERA, 1.43 WHIP, 13.1 IP, 3.4 BB/9, 12.8 K/9
MLB:  8-2-24, 2.48 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 58.0 IP, 4.2 BB/9, 11.8 K/9

The Brewers went Axford back to AAA to start the season, but they recalled him in mid-May and he quickly took over the closer role.  He made progress with his control and continued to post a very high K rate.

2011
MLB:  2-2-46, 1.95 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 73.2 IP, 3.1 BB/9, 10.5 K/9

Axford had a big year, leading the NL in saves and greatly improving his control.

2012
MLB:  5-8-35, 4.67 ERA, 1.44 WHIP, 69.1 IP, 5.1 BB/9, 12.1 K/9

Axford didn’t have nearly as good a season, as his HR/FB rate for some reason more than tripled, from 6.0% in 2011 to 19.2% in 2012.  His xFIP, which is adjusted for HR rate, was 3.29, well over a run lower than his ERA.  The high rate of flyballs turning into gopher balls has plagued him ever since.  He also had a control relapse.  Miller Park, a HR haven, probably didn’t help, as seven of the ten HRs he allowed came there.  Axford still recorded 35 saves, but he blew nine.

2013
MLB (Mil):  6-7-0, 4.45 ERA, 1.56 WHIP, 54.2 IP, 3.8 BB/9, 8.9 K/9
MLB (StL):  1-0-0, 1.74 ERA, 1.36 WHIP, 10.1 IP, 2.6 BB/9, 9.6 K/9

Milwaukee removed Axford from the closer role and he regressed further.  He allowed more hits than innings pitched, after previously allowing significantly fewer every year.  His K rate also dropped, although his walk rate did, too.  His gopher ball problem continued, with a HR/FB rate of 19.6% with the Brewers.  Milwaukee sent him to the Cardinals in a waiver trade at the end of August and he pitched better, although not as much as the ERAs show.  His xFIP was 3.66 with the Brewers and 3.01 with the Cards.  St. Louis non-tendered him after the season and he signed with Cleveland.

2014
MLB (Cleve):  2-3-10, 3.92 ERA, 1.47 WHIP, 43.2 IP, 6.2 BB/9, 10.5 K/9
MLB (Pgh):  0-1-0, 4.09 ERA, 1.36 WHIP, 11.0 IP, 4.9 BB/9, 9.8 K/9

Axford opened the season as the Indians’ closer and mostly pitched well, but still lost the role to Cody Allen in early May.  His control problems returned, leading to a career-worst walk rate and a career-worst xFIP of 3.99.  The high HR/FB rate continued, at 16.2%.  In mid-August, the Pirates acquired Axford via a straight waiver claim.  He pitched decently for them, but still struggled to throw strikes.  The Pirates didn’t activate him for the wild card game.

It probably says a lot that, even though Axford wasn’t pitching badly with the Indians, they let him go on a straight waiver claim, possibly just to get rid of the $1.1M in salary they owed him.  It also says something that enough teams passed on him for him to get to the Pirates.  The Pirates’ decision not to activate Axford for the wild card game clearly shows they weren’t all that impressed with him and the emergence of John Holdzkom probably eliminates any need for them to pay Axford an arbitration salary to bring him back in 2015.  He’ll probably be non-tendered in the off-season.

UPDATE:  Axford was, in fact, designated for assignment in October when the Pirates acquired Justin Sellers and reinstated Charlie Morton from the 60-day disabled list.  Due to his salary, it’s unlikely anybody will claim Axford so he’ll probably become a free agent.

STATS
Baseball Reference–Majors
Baseball Reference–Minors
Fangraphs
MLB.com
MiLB.com
CONTRACT INFORMATION
2011: $442,500
2012: $525,000
2013: $5,000,000
2014: $4,500,000
PLAYER INFORMATION
Signing Bonus: N/A
MiLB Debut: 2007
MLB Debut: 9/15/2009
MiLB FA Eligible: N/A
MLB FA Eligible: 2017
Rule 5 Eligible: N/A
Added to 40-Man: 9/7/2009
Options Remaining: 2 (USED:  2010)
MLB Service Time: 3.170
TRANSACTIONS
June 5, 2001: Drafted by the Seattle Mariners in the 7th round, 219th overall pick.
June 7, 2005: Drafted by the Cincinnati Reds in the 42nd round, 1259th overall pick.
August 11, 2006:
Signed as a non-drafted free agent with the New York Yankees.
December 14, 2007: Released by the New York Yankees.
March 4, 2008: Signed as a minor league free agent by the Milwaukee Brewers.
September 7, 2009: Contract purchased by the Milwaukee Brewers.
August 30, 2013: Traded by the Milwaukee Brewers to the St. Louis Cardinals for Michael Blazek.
December 2, 2013: Non-tendered by the St. Louis Cardinals.
December 19, 2013: Signed as a free agent with the Cleveland Indians.
August 14, 2014: Claimed off waivers by the Pittsburgh Pirates from the Cleveland Indians.
Menu