Another week, another couple of awful performances from John Axford, who book-cased two perfect saves with blown saves against the Royals and Blue Jays. Coming into the season, Axford was one of the stronger closer options in the game, and was drafted behind only Craig Kimbrel, Mariano Rivera, Jonathan Papelbon, and Brian Wilson on average in preseason drafts. And for good reason – of all pitchers who notched 20 saves in 2011, Axford had the 3rd best ERA (1.95), 5th best xFIP (2.85), and the 5th best K/9 (10.51). From 2010 to 2011, Axford boosted his velocity from 94.6 to 95.5 MPH, as well as his Zone%, from 44.1% to 51.6%. This combination allowed him to cut his BB/9 from 4.19 to 3.05 and keep his K/9 above 10. A cursory glance at this season’s performance shows even more positive development, with Axford further increasing his velocity to 96.2 MPH, and his K/9 jumping to a career high of 12.52.
Why the struggles, then? His first strike and Zone% have both dropped this season, from 2011 marks of 61.6% and 51.6% to 58.1% and 44.9% in 2012. Not surprisingly, his walk rate has jumped to 5.60 per 9 innings. Falling behind in the count has perhaps led Axford to dial up his fastball at a career high rate of 72%, and the increased exposure has not been kind to his heater — what was a good pitch in 2011 (6.6 runs above average) has been a terrible pitch in 2012 (4.9 runs below average). In addition to receiving additional free passes, batters are squaring up to the tune of a 27.4% line drive rate, leading to an elevated BABIP (.329) and a lowered strand rate of 60.3%. All told, Axford has put up career worsts in ERA (5.60) and WHIP (1.57).
The drop in control and command suggests there may be an undisclosed injury at play. Even if there isn’t, the Brewers may give Axford a few days off to get himself straightened out. Francisco Rodriguez is the add in the immediate term, and while he’s not the pitcher who lit the world on fire with a 95 MPH fastball and killer slider in the 2002 postseason, and continued to mow hitters down with those offerings through 2007, he’s good enough (8.35 K/9, 3.43 FIP) to get the job done on a temporary basis. Unless an injury is the cause of Axford’s struggles, I think he eventually figures his pitch sequencing out and performs somewhere between his 2010 and 2011 levels the rest of the way, with an ERA perhaps closer to 3.
Another dominant closer struggling in recent weeks is Aroldis Chapman. After striking out 44 of 96 batters faced and not allowing an earned run through the month of May, Chapman has been bitten by the BABIP and HR/FB bug that affected Sean Marshall earlier in the season. Chapman’s K% is 41.7% in June, and while that’s down from the 45.8% mark he held at the conclusion of May, it’s still an amazing rate — one matched only by Craig Kimbrel and Ernesto Frieri. Chapman’s BB% is exactly what it was through May, 8.3%. The source of his struggles stem from his failure to get strike one on hitters. While he’s throwing more pitches in the strike zone than ever before (52.3%; 47.8% career), he’s doing so with the worst first strike% in his three seasons in the big leagues (48.3%; 52.7% in 2011). He’s mostly gotten away with falling behind hitters because, quite simply, hitters can’t consistently put the bat on the ball — coming up empty on 33.2% of swings on pitches in the strike zone. Still, having to throw fastballs to hitters waiting for them is eventually going to catch up to anybody, and Chapman’s BABIP has swelled to .333 in June. Sean Marshall (2.22 FIP, 5.83 K/BB) should be owned in all holds leagues; even in non-holds leagues, he can be picked up as a ratio helper/handcuff in the event Chapman continues to have difficulties with his command. Ultimately, if Chapman can throw strikes in hitter’s counts, he’ll eventually start throwing first pitch strikes, too.
Seattle Mariners: If Tom Wilhelmsen continues to pitch as well as he has since inheriting the closer role (10.2 IP, 5 baserunners, 0 R, 14 K), teams might start calling about his availability. Brandon League made two appearances this week, allowing 2 hits and not walking or striking out a batter in 2 scoreless innings. If Wilhelmsen falters, League will be reinserted into the 9th, but I think it’s time to cast bait on someone else — if you haven’t already. If League is traded by the deadline, he’ll be a setup or middle reliever on another team, and in the meantime, how many save opportunities would he get with the Mariners (if he even takes back the closer role)? I’d go with K-Rod or the next two guys I’m covering if they’re available in your league.
Detroit Tigers: Jose Valverde has a sprained pitching wrist, and people looking at his 1.12 K/BB ratio are probably wondering why the Tigers didn’t decide he had this injury earlier. Joaquin Benoit and his delicious 18.4% swinging strike rate will handle closing duties in Valverde’s absence, and since he’s available in over 90% of ESPN leagues, you should be able to grab him. Benoit’s striking out 33.6% of batters faced and owns a 3.38 K/BB and a 1.99/1.20 ERA/WHIP. Grab him now, before someone else does.
Minnesota Twins: Since becoming a full-time reliever in 2011, Glen Perkins has been a revelation for the Twins. His velocity, which was 89-91 as a starter, is now 95 on average. He’s ditched his changeup and reduced usage of his 4-seam fastball, adding a 2-seam fastball and increasing the usage of his slider in their place. His swinging strike rate, which ranged from 5.3% to 7.9% while starting, is now 14.1%. He’s nearly tripled his K%, from 10.6% in 2009 to 30.4% this season. Perkins earned his first save of the season Wednesday, filling in for an injured Matt Capps, who has been out since Friday with shoulder inflammation. Capps has displayed his customary excellent control (1.07 BB/9) this season, but his K-rate of 5.33 per 9 leaves much to be desired. He’s expendable and likely to be traded by July 31st, and Perkins will take over the 9th when that happens, or if Capps re-aggravates his shoulder injury. If Perkins is available in a holds league, grab him, and if you’re looking for speculative saves and Benoit isn’t available, pick Glen up.
Chicago Cubs: Dale Sveum handed the 9th back to Carlos Marmol, and Marmol has closed out his two opportunities with only 2 BB in 2 IP. That actually lowered his 2012 BB/9. Progress! He was hitting 95 MPH regularly against the White Sox, and even touched 96 a couple times. Marmol is an intriguing option if he’s throwing 95, much more than he is if he were throwing 92. If you’re still rostering Shawn Camp, James Russell, or Brandon League, go with Marmol instead.
Houston Astros: With a $10 million option vesting in 2013 if he closes 45 games and doesn’t end the year on the DL, Brett Myers isn’t long for the 9th, whether he is traded or remains with the Astros. Outside of his 0.2 IP, 8 H, 5 R meltdown on Monday, Myers has been the NL’s version of Matt Capps, throwing strikes (1.54 BB/9) while not racking up strikeouts (6.17 K/9). Unless you’re in a really deep/holds league, I wouldn’t add anyone from the Astros bullpen just yet. Wait and see how the Astros handle Brandon Lyon, David Carpenter, and Wilton Lopez when Lopez returns from the DL. Carpenter has the most strikeout ability (career 8.94 K/9) and the more traditional closing repertoire (95 MPH fastball, 85 MPH slider), but has poor control (4.31 BB/9) and struggles versus LHH (17:15 K:BB, 4.99 FIP). Lopez is a strong GB pitcher, inducing worm burners at a 56.6% clip, has excellent control (1.66 BB/9), and even has a higher K% than Carpenter this season (21.0% to Carpenter’s 19.7%). Brandon Lyon has been a mediocre pitcher in his career before this season, and his K/9 (9.11) doesn’t seem real. He posted similar swinging strike rates in 2009 and 2010 and had a K/9 in the low-to-mid 6 range both seasons. That said, if he manages to continue striking out a batter per inning and Myers is traded before Lopez has recovered from his elbow injury, he may be the Astros’ closer.