Respecting John Axford

From Tyler Kepner's piece about what might be the last days of Trevor Hoffman:

    Hoffman, 42, converted just five of his first 10 save opportunities this season, and batters are hitting .339 off him. He is 1-3 with a 12.21 earned run average; the victory came after he blew a save by allowing consecutive home runs. His last game, on Sunday, was in setup relief for John Axford, a former independent leaguer who had never before earned a save.

    "It was a little strange,” Axford said. “Actually, a lot strange. It was kind of surreal."


    “He’s the epitome of what the game’s about, playing the game the right way and being the ultimate professional,” said Chicago White Sox starter Jake Peavy, a former teammate.

    “You can’t help but to pull for a guy like that, and I hate to see what’s happened. I don’t necessarily agree, looking from the outside in, with how they treated the situation. Everybody goes through tough times. And for him to throw the eighth inning of a game and then somebody else save it, I just think that’s as disrespectful as can be.”

This, of course, is why they don't let the players decide who gets to play, and when. According to Peavy's logic, when a once-great closer isn't still good enough to close, you have two choices: 1) keep throwing him out there anyway and lose a bunch of close games, or 2) release him. Anything else would be disrespectful.

Whatever. Last October the Brewers committed to paying Hoffman eight million dollars this season. Granted, there's more to respect than money ... but it's a pretty good start, especially for a 42-year-old junkballer who's going to give you 50 innings.

Anyway, this story's interesting as far as it goes, but Hoffman's far from the first great player who had some issues on his way to a graceful exit from the grand game. You know which name in this story intrigues me?

John Axford.

Guy pitched for Notre Dame for three years, walked 118 hitters in 144 innings, got drafted in the 45th round by the Reds, didn't sign, pitched for Canisius, walked 75 hitters in 75 innings, and somehow wound up pitching in the Yankees' system, zipping from low Class A to Triple-A in three short months.

That was 2007.

Axford spent the entire 2008 season with the Brewers' Class A affiliate in Brevard County, Florida and walked 73 hitters in 95 innings. He was 25, and stuck in the Florida State League.

And then in 2009, Axford found it. He dominated Class A hitters, then he dominated Double-A hitters, and then he held his own in Triple-A and finally, in September, the National League. On the last day of the season in St. Louis, Trevor Hoffman walked three Cardinals in the ninth inning and blew the save. In the top of the 10th, the Brewers scored twice. And in the bottom of the 10th, John Axford struck out David Freese and Khalil Greene before retiring Albert Pujols on a pop to the shortstop.

That was Axford's first save, and if he'd never thrown another pitch he might have been thrilled with his career and how it ended.

But of course it didn't end with that modestly magical moment. He opened this season back in Triple-A, and pitched brilliantly, 19 strikeouts (and five walks) in 13 innings.

Is he a worthy replacement for (early-40s) Trevor Hoffman? I don't know. In his brief time in the majors, Axford's walked 10 in 14 innings. He does throw 95 miles an hour, which is a positive marker. He's never given up a home run in the majors, and gave up only two homers in 47 Triple-A innings. You strike out enough guys and keep the ball in the yard, and you can get away with a few extra walks.

Hey, I just wrote more about John Axrod than Trevor Hoffman. Was that disrespectful?