- Buster Olney, Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
John Axford spoke last summer to Brewers general manager Doug Melvin about how he and Nicole, his wife, planned to take a European vacation in this offseason, to see Italy and Greece. But when Melvin and Axford spoke again this winter, the reliever mentioned that those plans had been scratched. The Axfords have a baby due in June, and they decided to apply the vacation money toward the purchase of a home instead.
Melvin thought to himself: This is the kind of decision typical for Axford; smart and diligent, someone who has had to work and grind for everything he has in the majors. It was just 38 months ago, after all, that Axford was released by the Yankees out of their minor league system. He was 24 at the time and wasn't gaining traction in his baseball career, because of control problems. He thought about pursuing work outside of baseball.
But a mechanical adjustment would change his career path immediately, and dramatically.
Axford had been regarded as a strong pro prospect early in his time at Notre Dame, but he had Tommy John surgery in 2003 and never really had a chance to rebound in college. Instead, he bounced around. Axford was drafted in the 42nd round by the Reds in 2005, was signed by the Yankees going into the 2007 season and pitched at all three levels in 2007, walking 45 in 63 innings, with 67 strikeouts. The Yankees cut him loose after that year, and the words he heard were direct: It just hadn't worked out the way the Yankees had hoped. "Having that open honesty from them was great," Axford said, "but at the same time -- crushing."
Axford signed with the Brewers, pitching in Class A, walking 73 in 95 innings. He felt he threw terribly in spring training of 2009, and was assigned to Class A again. Axford got an assignment to start and was supposed to throw four innings; he lasted just one.
He was approached right after that by Lee Tunnell, the Brewers' roving pitching coordinator, and the pitching coach for Class A Brevard County, Fred Dabney. Tunnell had an idea: He wanted to make Axford a little more athletic in his mechanics, utilizing a hip turn. "Have you ever seen Roy Halladay pitch?" he asked.
Yes, Axford said.
"Well, I want you to throw like him," said Tunnell, who felt that Axford was hurt by the fact that his motion was so robotic, and hampered by a hitch in his mechanics that had developed after his elbow surgery.
(The irony is that early in Halladay's career, pitching coach Mel Queen had had a similar conversation with Halladay, asking him to alter his mechanics, in an effort to get more movement on his fastball.)
Using this new delivery, Axford started throwing in the bullpen, and very quickly -- "within 10 pitches," Axford recalls -- he felt an enormous difference in his ability to throw strikes, in his ability to drive the ball to his glove side (he is right-handed, so glove side for him is inside to left-handed hitters and outside to right-handed hitters). He lowered his arm angle a bit -- as Halladay had done -- and right away his two-seam fastball was better.
With the new mechanics, Axford was releasing the ball more directly in front of the mound, rather than falling off to the side, which immediately aided his command.
"It kind of brought me back to where I was before the surgery," Axford recalled. "It helped me forget about the physical side of pitching. ... Once I was feeling it out on the mound, everything was flowing together."
Yes. His season, and his career, changed with that one bullpen session in Dunedin, Fla., and closed with seven appearances in the big leagues with the Brewers. When Trevor Hoffman started poorly in 2010, Axford was summoned from the minors and took over as the Brewers' closer, finishing the year with 76 strikeouts and 27 walks in 58 innings, while allowing one home run and posting a 2.48 ERA.
If he continues to throw that well, John and Nicole Axford and family will probably find their way to Italy and Greece.
Around the league
• The other day at Safeco Field, Felix Hernandez worked out with his brother Moises -- a pitcher who recently signed a minor league deal with the Mariners -- and afterward, he sat and chatted and could not have been more unequivocal about how he views his future: He's got four years left on his current contract and then in four years "We'll see," he said -- but he also made clear how much he loves pitching for the Mariners and living in Seattle, where he is one of the few Mariners to keep an offseason home.
Who knows what the future will bring; he will be a free agent at age 28, and presumably would have a chance to draw offers from all the big-money teams. But based on that conversation, it would not be a shock if he turned out to be the Cal Ripken or Tony Gwynn of Seattle and played his whole career for the Mariners. He has worked diligently for the team at offseason events, and is embracing the responsibility of being the face of his franchise.
• Francisco Liriano doesn't seem to be part of the Twins' long-term plans, writes Joe Christensen. Within this piece, Christensen speculates that the Twins might be willing to entertain offers for Liriano -- in mid-March.
And if that were to happen, you can bet the Yankees would be on the phone.
• CC Sabathia has dropped about 30 pounds in this offseason, according to sources, in an effort to reduce the stress on his surgically repaired knee.
• Mets are trying to give tickets away, writes Ken Belson.
• Heard this: Russell Branyan, who has a career average of 31 home runs per 162 games, is expected to choose among offers in the next week.
Moves, deals and decisions
2. Ross Ohlendorf won his arbitration case; Jered Weaver should learn the outcome of his arbitration decision today. It will be interesting to see how that turns out, because in recent years Weaver's agent, Scott Boras, had settled his arbitration cases.
3. Dusty Baker will have some tough choices, writes John Erardi.
6. The Orioles are going back to WBAL, as Dan Connolly writes.
7. The Rangers have increased some ticket prices, writes Jeff Wilson.
Dings and dents
• Padres bullpen coach Darrel Akerfelds is battling cancer, writes Bill Center.
• Here are some lessons the Mets could learn from the Rangers, as their ownership goes through its money turmoil, by Brian Costa.
• Rollie Fingers has the greatest facial hair in baseball history; the Reds don't allow facial hair. Cincinnati talked about signing Fingers in 1987, as Hal McCoy writes.
• Here are five questions about the Blue Jays, from Ken Fidlin.
• Jim Tracy's view of the Giants: A rivalry has developed between Colorado and San Francisco.
• The D-backs are looking to do more with less, writes Nick Piecoro.
• The Tigers are anticipating a fun ride in 2011, if they're healthy, writes Lynn Henning.
• Every Cardinals game will be on TV.
• This is a great story about a baseball player and his coach.
• The Giants' coaches helped to keep things glued together, writes Bruce Jenkins.
Dave Righetti has become one of the most underrated coaches in the big leagues, I think.
• Steve Dilbeck writes about the 10 coolest Dodgers of all time. Sandy Koufax is No. 1, which makes sense ... But Manny Ramirez ahead of Kirk Gibson? As a once-rabid Dodgers fan, I've got a major beef with that one.
• Here are five reasons to worry about the Braves, courtesy of Mark Bradley.
• Some former Rays are working out in the Tampa Bay area, as Marc Topkin writes.
• Here are some White Sox answers, for questions posed to Mark Gonzales.
• The Fredi era starts soon for the Braves, which gave David O'Brien an excuse to ride Harleys with the Braves' new manager. I'm guessing this is a journalism first.
• Paul Hoynes writes about winners and losers from this offseason.
• A.J. Martelli solved a mystery about the baseball scene in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off."
I've got another one for Mr. Martelli, or others: What was the date and context of the baseball clip showed in "A Few Good Men"?
This is not a quiz; I don't know the answer.
• Will be on "Baseball Tonight" at 3:30 p.m. today, when we'll air a piece from a day spent with Adrian Gonzalez. Got lots of stories from that ...
Gonzalez, by the way, has arrived at the Red Sox camp.
• Vanderbilt has a big game with Alabama tonight.
• A 46th happy birthday to Jimmy Davenport, formerly of Woodstock, Vt., wherever you are.
And today will be better than yesterday.
It seems so preposterous. Somewhere amidst the spiraling of a career, a coach tells a young pitcher "Throw like Roy Halladay." The weird thing: It worked. Buster details how John Axford, yes, got his groove back.