There are many out there who immediately diagnosed John Axford as trouble after the first game of the season against the Cincinnati Reds. Axford blew a three run lead and the Brewers lost their opening game 7-6. The scrutiny didn't really seem all that warranted considering just how effective Axford was last season. After all, it was one inning. That's pretty simple to shake off.
What transpired over the next couple of outings is where concern really starts to set in for Brewers fans. The problem seems rather easy to diagnose: he's not throwing strikes. However, that really isn't the problem at all, which leads to even more confusion.
At the moment, Axford has thrown a total of 136 pitches this season. Of those 136, 82 have gone for strikes, or 60.3%. While that isn't the highest strike percentage, it's not that bad. Take Axford's 2010 for comparaison. Last season, Axford threw strikes on 607 of his 989 pitches. That translates into 61.4% pitches thrown for strikes. Sure that is better than this season, but really doesn't seem to be the problem.
Axford seemed to have a tendency to get batters to swing at pitches out of the zone last season. To the naked eye, that ability has eluded him this year. However, again, this doesn't seem to be the problem. In fact, Axford has actually gotten hitters to swing at a higher percentage of pitches outside the strike zone this year (33.9%), than last year (32.1%). It's not like the hitters aren't chasing pitches, they are. Where Axford's problem lies is what happens when the chase those pitches.
This season, despite getting hitters to chase balls, they are making contact with them. This surely has a direct correlation to where Axford's pitches have been. Axford has seemed to lose control of the slider that was so deadly last season. Time and time again, Axford has left his slider up this season. When it's up and possibly missing the strike zone, it's much easier to make contact than when it's sharp and diving out of it. So far this year, batters are making contact at a 89.5% rate of pitches thrown out of the strike zone. Last season, those same pitches were only hit 57.3% of the time when the batter swung.
Are Axford's six walks in 6.1 innings a concern? Sure. Were Axford's control troubles in Philadelphia Monday apparent? Yes. Outings like Monday are going to happen for pitchers like Axford. Where my concern lies in is where Axford is throwing pitches. A floating slider is easy to hit, even if it is a ball. Pitches are going to walk batters if they are unable to get batters to swing and miss at pitches out of the strike zone. Until Axford is able to regain the biting slider from last season, the ninth inning will be a concern for Brewers fans.