Indians reliever John Axford was a Cardinal for less than two months, including the post-season, at the end of 2013, but it was invaluable. Per John Lott of the National Post, Axford learned from his Cardinal coaches that he had been tipping his pitches.
On John Axford’s first day with the St. Louis Cardinals, his new coaches sat him down for a meeting. We’ve been scouting you for five years, they said. And by the way, you might be interested in one thing we know about you: You’re tipping your pitches.
His fortunes turned when the Cardinals acquired him last Aug. 30. After he made “one little adjustment” in his delivery, batters no longer knew what to expect. Axford posted a 1.74 ERA in 13 games for St. Louis and topped it off with a 1.59 mark in six post-season games, including two scoreless outings against Boston in the World Series.
The Cardinals could have kept Axford around, but the right-hander was projected to make between $5-6 million in his second year of arbitration eligibility. Instead, the Cardinals non-tendered him in early December. Two weeks later, the Indians signed him to a one-year deal worth $4.5 million, effectively replacing Chris Perez as the closer.
Axford credits his short stint in St. Louis for rediscovering success, saying, “I don’t think I would be in the position I’m in right now with the Cleveland Indians if I wasn’t traded [from Milwaukee].”
“Work fast and throw strikes” has long been the top conventional wisdom for those preaching pitching success. The “work fast” part of that has increasingly gone by the wayside, however, as pitchers take more and more time to throw pitches in an effort to max out their effort and, thus, their velocity with each pitch.
Now, as Ben Lindbergh of The Ringer reports, the “throw strikes” part of it is going out of style too:
Pitchers are throwing fewer pitches inside the strike zone than ever previously recorded . . . A decade ago, more than half of all pitches ended up in the strike zone. Today, that rate has fallen below 47 percent.
There are a couple of reasons for this. Most notable among them, Lindbergh says, being pitchers’ increasing reliance on curves, sliders and splitters as primary pitches, with said pitches not being in the zone by design. Lindbergh doesn’t mention it, but I’d guess that an increased emphasis on catchers’ framing plays a role too, with teams increasingly selecting for catchers who can turn balls that are actually out of the zone into strikes. If you have one of those beasts, why bother throwing something directly over the plate?
There is an unintended downside to all of this: a lack of action. As Lindbergh notes — and as you’ve not doubt noticed while watching games — there are more walks and strikeouts, there is more weak contact from guys chasing bad pitches and, as a result, games and at bats are going longer.
As always, such insights are interesting. As is so often the case these days, however, such insights serve as an unpleasant reminder of why the on-field product is so unsatisfying in so many ways in recent years.