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Fantasy Relief: Axford losing his command

Michael Hurcomb
Fantasy Writer
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John Axford entered 2012 with so much promise after finishing the 2011 season as the second-highest Fantasy scoring reliever in Head-to-Head formats and third-highest in Rotisserie leagues. He was the fourth-most drafted reliever in Rotisserie and fifth-most in Head-to-Head formats this spring.

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Sadly, Axford hasn't lived up to the expectations through the first half of the season. Through Monday, he was barely a top 30 Fantasy reliever in Head-to-Head leagues.

Axford had some rocky moments early in the season, but by the end of May he had just one blown save and a 3.26 ERA. Axford's struggles began in June. Last month, he posted a 9.00 ERA and three blown saves over 10 appearances.

The big shift in productivity was because Axford walked seven batters and allowed four home runs in 10 June innings. In his first 21 appearances (19 1/3 innings), Axford walked 11 batters and allowed no home runs. The walks didn't really start to hurt him until June.

A closer look at Axford's numbers last month show he had trouble with his secondary pitches. Axford's primary pitch is a four-seam fastball, with his secondary pitches being a curveball and slider. In June, Axford threw his curveball for a strike at a 48.6 percent rate and his slider at 50 percent, according to PitchFX data compiled by TexasLeaguers.com. To compare to 2011, Axford recorded strikes on 54.2 percent of his curveballs and 59.8 percent of his sliders. Through the first two months of this season, Axford had a strike rate of 52.4 percent on his curveball and 67.9 percent on his slider.

That's significant because the lack of command with his secondary pitches made Axford's fastball flat in June. He managed just an 8.6 percent whiff rate on his fastball in June, as opposed to a 10.7 rate through the first two months of the season.

Top non-closers Week 13 (H2H)
Player Points
1. Aaron Laffey, RP, Blue Jays 34
2. Luis Mendoza, RP, Royals 30.5
3. Lucas Harrell, RP, Astros 30.5
4. Michael Fiers, RP, Brewers 28
5. Chris Sale, RP, White Sox 24.5
6. Josh Collmenter, RP, Diamondbacks 24
7. Franklin Morales, RP, Red Sox 22.5
8. Andrew Cashner, RP, Padres 21.5
9. Josh Roenicke, RP, Rockies 19
10. Freddy Garcia, RP, Yankees 18.5

Axford seemed to be reversing his misfortunes in July after tossing two scoreless innings to open the month, allowing no walks and one hit. The PitchFX data shows that Axford has yet to throw a slider this month, firing 58 fastballs and eight curveballs. His strike rate on his fastball in July is 63.8 percent and whiff rate is 13.8 percent. His strike rate on his curveball is 50 percent and the in-play rate is zero percent. But his performance Wednesday somewhat tarnishes that idea.

It's unlikely, though, that Axford will completely scrap throwing a slider because it's been an effective pitch for him in the past. Even with the off month in June, Axford has a 21.7 percent whiff rate on his slider. Last season, Axford had a 59.8 percent strike rate and 12.2 percent whiff rate on his slider.

A few other troubling numbers for Axford this season have been a .312 BABIP, 26 percent line drive rate and 62.8 percent strand rate, which are all career lows for the 29-year-old hurler. Axford also has an 18.2 percent home run to fly ball ratio, which is beyond awful. The average is 9.5 percent and Axford has never been above 6.0 percent in his career.

Axford's ERA is 4.86 through 35 appearances, but his FIP is 3.72 and xFIP is 3.08, indicating his numbers should be better than what has transpired. The Brewers might fall out of contention in the second half, but I'm endorsing Axford as a buy-low candidate because better times appear on the horizon.

Closing Time

Each week we'll break down closer situations worthy of further examination ...

Seattle: Last week, I highlighted potential relievers on the trade market in July and mentioned former Mariners closer Brandon League in that group because of the emergence of Tom Wilhelmsen. However, The Seattle Times suggested Tuesday Wilhelmsen might be the better trade candidate than League, citing Wilhelmsen being under team control through 2017 as added value. The Times also points out Seattle has three potential closers in waiting in Stephen Pryor, Carter Capps and Steve Delabar, which could make Wilhelmsen expendable. I can comprehend what the Times is suggesting, but I'm not buying it. What could the M's really get for Wilhelmsen? Maybe a 'B' level prospect. I'm not sure the haul would be worth parting ways with an up-and-coming closer that doesn't hit arbitration until 2015. I wouldn't start worrying about Wilhelmsen losing Fantasy value just yet. He is still the M's closer and a viable option for saves.

Washington: Drew Storen (elbow) will begin a rehab assignment with Class A Potomac Thursday. He is expected to make four rehab appearances before being activated, which could happen after the All-Star break. But as we highlighted last week, manager Davey Johnson intends to keep Tyler Clippard in the closer's role, so unless those plans change, Storen is likely to be one of the most dropped players once he is no longer eligible to be stored on DL spots in Fantasy formats.

Top non-closers Week 13 (Rotisserie)
Player Rank
1. Freddy Garcia, RP, Yankees 35
2. Dale Thayer, RP, Padres 38
3. Shawn Kelley, RP, Mariners 40
4. David Hernandez, RP, Diamondbacks 46
5. Sean Burnett, RP, Nationals 52
6. Josh Roenicke, RP, Rockies 62
7. Andrew Miller, RP, Red Sox 69
8. Charlie Furbush, RP, Mariners 74
9. Vicente Padilla, RP, Red Sox 76
10. Brad Lincoln, RP, Pirates 78

Minnesota: Matt Capps (shoulder) is expected to begin a rehab assignment early next week with the hope of being activated off the disabled list following the All-Star break. Capps appears on track for a Week 15 (July 13-15) return. Glen Perkins and Jared Burton remain co-closers while Capps is sidelined.

Boston: Andrew Bailey is back to throwing again after suffering a setback with his surgically repaired thumb. The Red Sox will likely continue to proceed with caution and Bailey is likely at least a few weeks away from potentially making his season debut. But much like what Washington is doing with its closer situation, don't be surprised if Boston takes the same route. Manager Bobby Valentine might leave Alfredo Aceves in the closer's role once Bailey is cleared to return.

Call to the 'pen

Each week we'll break down pertinent Fantasy news with setup men and other relievers ...

Mike Dunn's banishment to the minors has paid off. After spending nearly a month at Triple-A, Dunn returned to the Marlins' bullpen in late June. He has since thrown seven perfect outings (six innings), which includes four strikeouts and three holds. Dunn's last three appearances through Monday have all come in the eighth inning of wins. Manager Ozzie Guillen said Dunn is pitching with "confidence" and the team is reciprocating the confidence by using Dunn is high-leverage situations. Dunn is emerging as a viable Fantasy option for holds ... Yankees reliever Joba Chamberlain (elbow, ankle) could go on a rehab assignment in a few weeks. Chamberlain has vowed to pitch in 2012 and it seems he is on track to do so. Chamberlain might get some setup work if he proves effective once off the disabled list, but there's no need to hold onto him in any Fantasy format. Chamberlain doesn't have the same Fantasy value he once did as a starter ... Former A's closer Brian Fuentes was designated for assignment Tuesday. Even with his recent struggles, it wouldn't surprise me if Fuentes ends up with another major-league job. However, he isn't expected to find another closer's job, so leave Fuentes off rosters ... Chad Qualls was designated for assignment by Philadelphia and was eventually dealt to the Yankees, but changing teams likely has hurt his Fantasy value. Qualls was seeing regular hold chances with the Phillies, but likely won't get that chance with the Yankees as long as David Robertson and Boone Logan are healthy ... Braves setup man Eric O'Flaherty is back to being a reliable Fantasy option. After recording his second blown save May 2 and watching his ERA balloon to 7.56, O'Flaherty has a 1.35 ERA, 10 holds and one blown save in his last 23 outings (20 innings). Continue to use O'Flaherty in leagues that reward for holds.

Stay in touch with the most passionate Fantasy staff in the business by following us on Twitter @CBSFantasyBB or Michael Hurcomb at @CBSHurc . You can also send our staff an e-mail at fantasybaseball@cbsinteractive.com

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Player News
Brock Holt is 'the next candidate' to hit leadoff for Boston
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(11:17 am ET) The Red Sox used their fifth different leadoff hitter in 20 games when infielder Brock Holt got the nod Monday against the Orioles.

The Red Sox are hopeful Holt, who is batting .400 (4 for 10) since his recall from the minors, will provide a spark atop the lineup since Boston players are batting just .175 (14 for 80) with eight walks out of the leadoff spot.

"He’s had very good at-bats, both lefties and righties," manager John Farrell said, per ESPN. "Throughout his minor-league career he’s been a top-of-the-order hitter, so there’s no hesitancy putting him in that spot. In the short time that he’s been there he’s seen some pitches, he’s had some long at-bats.

"While we’re still searching for that one true guy in that spot, this is the next candidate."


Neil Walker has five home runs in last 10 games
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(11:11 am ET) Pirates second baseman Neil Walker snapped a 1-for-15 slump with a 3-for-6 performance Sunday against the Brewers.

Walker's first hit of the afternoon was a solo home run off Marco Estrada with two outs in the fourth inning, putting Pittsburgh up 1-0. Walker added a single in the bottom of the eighth and a single in the bottom of the 13th inning.

Walker has six home runs, with five coming in his last 10 games. He is slugging .513 through 19 games.


Mark Reynolds homers in two straight games
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(11:02 am ET) Brewers outfielder Mark Reynolds homered for the second straight game Sunday at Pittsburgh. Reynolds had a one-out double in the fifth inning before he led off the eighth inning with a solo home run off Gerrit Cole, which tied the game at 1.

Reynolds, who started all four games at first base against Pittsburgh, hit .333 (5 for 15) with one double, two home runs and two RBI during the series. He also had one walk, three runs and three strikeouts. 

Reynolds has five home runs and is slugging .558 through 15 games. However, he is batting just .231 with 20 strikeouts.


Khris Davis' first home run proves to be game winner
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(10:55 am ET) Brewers outfielder Khris Davis totaled three hits, including the go-ahead home run, during a 3-2 win in 14 innings Sunday at Pittsburgh. Davis other two hits were singles and he struck out twice in six at-bats.

Davis put the Brewers ahead 3-2 when he led off the top of the 14th inning with a solo home run off Jeanmar Gomez. Francisco Rodriguez picked up the save in the bottom of the inning to secure the 3-2 win.

Davis entered Sunday's game mired in a 2-for-24 slump over his previous seven games. He had just one RBI in that span. Sunday's home run was his first of the season.


Ryan Braun connects for three home runs over the weekend
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(10:50 am ET) A day after producing his second multi-homer game of the season, Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun connected for his sixth home run Sunday at Pittsburgh. Braun tied the game at 2 in the ninth inning with a one-out solo home run off Pirates closer Jason Grilli.

Braun finished the 14-inning game 2 for 5 with one walk. He is batting .370 (20 for 54) with a .796 slugging percentage and 1.193 OPS in his last 13 games. He has one triple, three doubles, six home runs, 14 RBI and 15 runs in that span.


Jason Heyward collects three hits vs. Mets
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(10:43 am ET) Braves outfielder Jason Heyward tied a season high with three hits Sunday against the Mets. It was just his third multi-hit game in 17 appearances.

Heyward had a single in the first inning, an RBI double in the fifth inning and another single in the seventh inning. He scored once, struck out twice and was caught stealing.


Jameson Taillon doing well after undergoing elbow surgery
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(10:39 am ET) Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said starting pitcher prospect Jameson Taillon is doing well after undergoing Tommy John surgery April 9. Taillon will miss the rest of the 2014 season.

"Early rehab is great, he's getting range of motion back, all positive so far," Huntington said, per the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.


Bryan Mitchell optioned back to minors
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(10:36 am ET) The Yankees announced Monday they optioned pitcher Bryan Mitchell to Double-A Trenton following Sunday's game against the Rays. Mitchell was called up Sunday.

Chris Davis feels he's starting to get timing back
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(10:32 am ET) Orioles first baseman Chris Davis enters Monday's game at Boston having reached base safely in 16 straight games. However, he is batting just .241 and has one home run after belting a career-high 53 in 2013.

"Yeah, guys have been pitching me differently," he said, per MASNsports.com. "Who should be thanking me are the guys around me because they're raking. In front of me, behind me, it doesn't matter, which is good because they've been picking me up.

"Just kind of been trying to take what they give me early on. It's kind of good and bad at the same time. Last year, I got off to the best start of my career, was locked in from Day 1 and just kind of rode it out for the whole season. This year, obviously not quite as hot as I was last year. But getting a chance to see a lot of pitches, being patient, which is not something that I'm used to."

Davis, who leads Baltimore with 10 walks, is feeling comfortable at the plate despite the lack of hits and home runs.

"I feel like, really, the last couple of games, my swing has started to come around a little bit, my timing's starting to get there," he said. "And hopefully, I can start hitting some more homers again."


Jose Lobaton totals season-high three hits
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(10:24 am ET) Nationals catcher Jose Lobaton connected for a season-high three hits Sunday against the Cardinals. All three hits were singles.

Lobaton is batting .273 (6 for 22) in his last six games. He has one RBI, one walk, two doubles, two runs and seven strikeouts in that span.


 
 
 
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