Axford departs

By Nathan Petrashek

play_g_axford1_sy_576John Axford is the only Brewers player I’ve booed.  I don’t remember when exactly it was, but I suspect it was some time in June or July of 2012, when his every other outing seemed to end in a (BS).  I’ve felt kind of guilty about that for a while now, because I’m usually a guy that likes to back up good players during their struggles.  Thanks for letting me get that off my chest.

Axford was traded to the Cardinals today, so his time as a Brewer appears about over.  The trade for a player to be named later was really more about finances than anything else.  Axford was pretty good trending to okay, but he was making $5M this year and has three years of arbitration eligibility left.

The money would have been easy to swallow if Axford was still pitching like it was 2011.  In the year that brought the Brewers to the brink of another World Series, Axford delivered a microscopic 1.95 ERA over 73 innings, all while striking out better than a batter per inning.  He placed 17th in the MVP vote, a showing that I didn’t (and still don’t) think truly represented just how absolutely crucial he was to winning the division that year.  It was one of the most memorable season-long pitching performances I’ve seen.  To say Axford was a lockdown closer that year doesn’t give him half the credit he deserves.

But Axford has his share of fleas too, and that’s why I’m fully on board with jettisoning him.  We kind of suspected it at the time, but 2011 looks increasingly like a well-timed aberration.  Where Axford once had three brilliant pitches, only his slider ranks as above average this year (and just barely).  And though he hasn’t really lost much velocity on his fastball, Axford’s biggest bugaboo is the same today as it was when he took over for Trevor Hoffman in 2010: command.  2011 aside, Axford has always allowed too many batters to reach via the walk, which is a real problem when you have a propensity for giving up the long ball.

And then there were the character issues.  Much of the time, Axford was fun, easygoing, and entertaining, and he usually owned it after he blew a save.  But man, when that guy took to Twitter, he could troll with the best of them, often responding in kind to neanderthal tweets.  To his credit, he’s scaled back on that a lot this year.

For me, John Axford does not leave a complicated legacy.  I’m going to carry those memories of 2011 fondly, one of the greatest relief seasons I’ve had the pleasure of watching in person.  But today, Axford is just a guy who makes too much money.   That (and the lack of a long-term contract) makes him expendable.  Though I wish Axford well with the evil empire, the Brewers made the right move.

Back in “Must Win” Territory

Last night’s game – Game 5 of the NLCS – was simply dreadful if you’re a Brewers fan.  Defensive miscues and a lack of clutch hitting deprived the Brewers of a victory in what would have been, absent such errors, a very winnable game.  Jamie Garcia tossed less than five innings, but gave up only one run and struck out five.  It was the Cardinals’ bullpen – a regular season weakness turned postseason strength for the Red Birds – that was again so, so good, tossing up scoreless frame after scoreless frame the rest of the way.  The Crew gave the Cardinals plenty of extra outs on three fielding errors and a throwing error, and the Cardinals took advantage for a 7-1 win and a 3-2 advantage in the series.

Tomorrow, Game 6, is an elimination game for the Milwaukee Brewers.  You can pat yourself on the back knowing you’re a virtual prophet if you saw this coming; that the Cardinals, who have such a historical and philosophical rivalry with the Crew, would be the ones to push the NL Central Champions to the brink of elimination.

So all eyes shift to the man who will take the mound for Milwaukee tomorrow night: Shaun Marcum.

My pizza delivery driver last night wasn’t impressed with Ron Roenicke’s choice of pitcher.  “You’ve heard Roenicke’s throwing Marcum out there for Game 6?”  It took me a moment to register that he was asking because I was wearing my NL Central Championship t-shirt.  “Yeah, I think its a good choice,” I said.  He looked at me, eyes burning, asking if I was serious.  And then explained precisely why he could manage the Brewers better than Ron Roenicke.

I support Roenicke’s choice.*  It is certainly true that Marcum has not been, in Roenicke’s words, “quite as sharp” as he had been earlier in the season.  But for a variety of reasons, I don’t think a lot of Brewers fans are giving Marcum a fair shake.  His pitch location the last few games, if not his pitch selection, has been fairly good, and there really haven’t been any significant velocity dips (not that Marcum is a power pitcher anyway).  His mechanics (arm slot, balance, etc) don’t appear to have noticeably changed, though such things can be subtle.

I’ve come to believe the problem lies in pitch selection.

I put together some graphs of a few of Marcum’s starts this season that illustrate the problem.  I selected two starts in the season in which Marcum pitched pretty well.  In the first on May 16, Marcum threw seven strong innings against the Dodgers, giving up one earned run on five hits with four strikeouts.  Marcum throws his plus-change about 39% of the time.  Combined, he throws his three fastballs (four-seam, two-seam, and cutter) about 33% of the time.

The next start I looked at was June 12 against the Cardinals.  Marcum again goes seven strong innings, this time allowing three runs on five hits with eight strikeouts. He uses his change even more, about 41%, while his fastballs collectively constitute about 46%.

Here’s where it starts to get hairy.  In his last three starts – September 26 against Pittsburgh, October 4 against the D’Backs in the NLDS, and October 10 against the Cardinals in the NLCS, Marcum relies heavily on his fastballs.

On September 26, Marcum threw his fastballs nearly three times as often as his change.  That ratio climbed to eight to one in his abbreviated start in Arizona.  And by the time we get to the NLCS, he’s throwing his very hittable fastballs about five times as often as his changeup.  The diminishing use of Marcum’s best pitch is puzzling given that his fastballs really don’t work without the change.

Although Marcum seems to have taken a fancy to the heat as the season grows colder, Marcum simply doesn’t have the velocity to support his heavy reliance on fastballs.  He needs to go to the change early and often tomorrow.  If he can put that pitch where he wants it – and the location data suggests he can still do that – he will hopefully be back to old form.  You can wonder why Marcum doesn’t have the confidence in his change he once displayed – only Marcum can answer that question – but the path out of this slump seems pretty clear as long as there is no injury or fatigue issue (and both Roenicke and Marcum assure us there is not).

You have to believe that pitching coach Rick Kranitz and the rest of the Brewers’ managerial staff have noted this pattern and are working to correct it.

So where does that leave us?  I would just like to give Brewer Nation a little reminder how we got here.  Marcum was a huge part of our regular season success and deserves credit for taking us this far.  He also deserves our support in a time when he is not doing so well.  Greinke has pitched poorly at times this postseason and yet seemingly gets a pass because the offense can generate a lot of runs for him.

Best of luck to Marcum tomorrow.  And should things get off track and this turns out to be the final game of the season – which would be especially disappointing given the opponent – we should be proud of all that the Brewers have accomplished this year.

*Not that I’m a Roenicke apologist by any means.  In my eyes, his decision to play Mark Kotsay in center field in Game 3 was a fatal error that cost us that game.  And sure enough, first inning Kotsay can’t reach a ball that any respectable center fielder could have grabbed.  Again, you cannot give the Red Birds extra outs, and that mistake falls squarely on Roenicke.

The Deadliest Cardinals Lineup Yet

The Cardinals bullpen was stellar yesterday in Game 3 of the NLCS, shutting down the Brewers’ offense after Chris Carpenter coughed up three runs early.  But the Cardinals’ offense picked Carpenter up, scoring four runs in the first off an uncharacteristically wild Yovani Gallardo.  The win gave the Cardinals a 2-1 advantage in the NLCS, and puts today’s Game 4 firmly in “must win” territory for the Milwaukee Brewers.

And so its not much of a surprise that LaRussa wants his proverbial boot on the team’s throat.

Ron Roenicke has learned a thing or two in the first three games, the first lesson being that you cannot pitch to Albert Pujols.  Pujols is hitting an insane .636 in the NLCS, with 6 RBI and a home run.  After doubling in a run yesterday, Pujols found himself all but taken out of the game by intentional walks (though he did nab second on a wild pitch).  Hard for the one-man wrecking crew to do much damage if he doesn’t get an opportunity to swing.

Thankfully, Matt Holliday, batting fourth, wasn’t able to make the Brewers play for the walks, striking out both times to end the inning.

But old LaRussa is too crafty to let that situation play out again.

Today’s lineup features Pujols batting third, but instead of Matt Holliday following behind, its David Freese.  Freese has been swinging an extraordinarily hot bat in the NLCS, to the tune of a .500 average with 2 home runs and 6 RBI.  Yes, David Freese has actually outslugged Albert Pujols.  So now when the Brewers walk Pujols, they’ll be bringing up perhaps the Cardinals’ hottest hitter.  And then the Brewers will still have to deal with Matt Holliday, batting fifth.  Lance Berkman gets the day off.

Tony LaRussa obviously doesn’t want this thing coming back to Milwaukee, and with good reason.  The Brewers certainly have a shot to win tonight – of the eight position players in the Cardinals’ batting order, only Pujols (.286) and Freese (.353) have career averages greater than .260 against Milwaukee’s Randy Wolf) – but LaRussa’s move has made the road that much more difficult.

A Marked Man

Human perception is a funny thing.

Let me posit a couple scenarios.

In the first, Shaun Marcum starts Game 2 of the NLCS at Miller Park. He does not have his best stuff, but some impressive defensive plays behind him limit the damage to two runs.  In the first, Marcum fields a Jon Jay bunt for an out before allowing a solo home run to Albert Pujols. Nyjer Morgan saves two runs in the third with his glove in center field, but Marcum allows another run in the fourth when Nick Punto singles in Yadier Molina.  Marcum is removed after that inning, and the bullpen plays scoreless baseball the rest of the way.  The Brewers win, 3-2, on a Prince Fielder home run in the eighth.

In the second, Shaun Marcum also starts Game 2 of the NLCS at Miller Park.  He does not have his best stuff, but is severely harmed by defensive lapses behind him.  He misplays a Jon Jay bunt in the first, and Albert Pujols follows up with a two-run home run.  Nyjer Morgan cannot haul in a couple of deep balls in the third, and the Cardinals again score two runs.  They score a fifth run in the fourth when Nick Punto singles in Yadier Molina, and that is all for Marcum.  The bullpen suffers an absolute meltdown after that, allowing seven more runs to score.  Prince Fielder hits a meaningless home run in the eighth, and the Brewers lose, 12-3.

The second scenario played out last night at Miller Park, but it could just as easily have been the first.  And yet today, Milwaukee is clamoring for Shaun Marcum’s head. During Marcum’s last two innings at Miller Park, I had to listen to the guy next to me repeatedly shout, “You suck, Marcum!”  Now there’s motivation for you.

Marcum, of course, doesn’t suck.  Quite the opposite, in fact.  During the regular season, Marcum had the team’s second-best starter ERA at 3.54.  He held opponents to a .232 average and allowed about 1.2 walks or hits per inning, best among the team’s starters.

There’s no doubt Marcum didn’t have his best stuff last night, but he didn’t pitch as badly as most seem to think. Sports radio this morning thought it was terribly funny to play a postgame quote from Marcum – declaring the Pujols home run pitch a good one – side by side with broadcast audio of the pitch – “right down the middle!”  Which was it?

Not a terribly good pitch, but not right down Wisconsin Avenue either.  Looks like a fastball high and away that didn’t have a whole lot of movement.  Might have been tough for any other batter, but Pujols doesn’t miss those pitches often.

And here are the rest of Marcum’s pitches in Game 2 of the NLCS.  The ones that hurt him were not right over the plate; in fact, except for that one pitch to Pujols, all the hits came on pitches either low or inside.  It looks like Marcum was simply beat by good Cardinal hitting.

And as long as we’re talking hypotheticals, let’s pretend, just for the sake of argument, that Marcum gave up the five runs but the bullpen set down five scoreless frames after that.  That would have put the final score at 5-3 on a late Prince Fielder home run.  Instead of walking away from the game shaking their heads, Brewers fans would have walked away thinking the Cardinals had eked out a narrow victory.  Would Brewers nation still be so hard on Marcum?  Doubtful.  I think our perception of Marcum was tainted more by what happened after he left the game than what happened during his four ill-fated innings.

Our perception is also tainted by recent history.  Marcum didn’t have a clean slate heading into the playoffs, allowing seven earnies in his abbreviated final regular season start against the Pirates.  And folks are quick to point out that his two mid-September starts against the Phillies and Colorado ended nearly as bad.  That all fits the narrative of Shaun Marcum as a pitcher whose first 200+ inning season has taken its toll on his arm.  They forget to mention, or just gloss over, his spectacular starts on September 4th and 20th, in which Marcum allowed one run over a combined fifteen innings with fifteen strikeouts and one walk.

So let’s cut Marcum a little slack.  Maybe we can’t figure out what’s wrong with him because there’s nothing wrong; he’s simply getting beat by good hitting.  Or maybe its something as simple as his pitch selection; as Jack Moore and Tom Haudricourt point out, he’s not throwing his bread-and-butter changeup nearly as often as he should be.

Whatever the reason for Marcum’s struggles, I can’t believe I’m hearing people seriously suggesting that Chris Narveson (regular season: 4.45 ERA, 1.4 WHIP, 3.6 BB/9) should get the start in Game 6 over Marcum. We’re talking the NLCS here.  If we’re to make our stand in Game 6, I want the pitcher with the highest upside out there.  With all due respect to Narveson, that is Shaun Marcum, and he’s shown it over and over again this season.