For closers like John Axford, mental battle is part of unstable job

Friday May 2nd, 2014

John Axford is back in the closer role for Cleveland after starring in it for Milwaukee in 2011.
Mark Duncan/AP

John Axford does this thing when he needs to block out the outside world. He will be sitting at his locker, or in the dugout, or in the bullpen in the moments before he will take the mound, the adrenaline coursing through his body, and he'll try to quiet his mind by thinking as intensely as possible about something small—something that has nothing to do with baseball. He will pick out a room in his house in Cleveland and try to visualize every piece of furniture in it, or he will think of a scene from a movie—lately, he's been obsessed with There Will Be Blood—and try to recall every image and every line of dialogue. It's an exercise that's helped Axford again become an effective major league closer after losing his job a year ago in Milwaukee. "I used to go through pitch sequences in my head, pitch by pitch, in scenarios of what could happen and what I'd want to happen, but I'd been finding difficulty focusing on that," he said. "This, I'm finding, is a good process for me. But everyone's different."

No closer in baseball has experienced more ups and downs over his career than The Ax Man. Five years ago, he was serving peach Bellinis at a bar called East Side Mario's in Hamilton, Ontario, making barely $8 an hour; two years later, in 2011, he saved a Brewers franchise record and league-high 46 games. After a rocky 2012 season and miserable start to 2013, he lost the closer's job in Milwaukee to a fellow Canadian with three career saves, Jim Henderson, and then was dealt later that summer to St. Louis, where he worked as a middle reliever in the Cardinals' bullpen. Over the winter, the Indians signed him to a one-year, $4.5 million deal to replace Chris Perez, and now Axford is a closer again, one that finished April with an American League-high eight saves in the month.

It is a high-wire act, the closer's role, a job with no safety net: You succeed or you don't. "And that's why I love it, because of the turmoil I've faced in the past," Axford said. "I've had the successes and I've had the failures and I've had the opportunities taken away. This job, it's all about trying to stabilize what's becoming an unstable part of the game."

Axford's re-emergence in Cleveland comes in what has been another strange, volatile start to the season for closers. Consider this: Of the 30 closers from 2013's Opening Day, including Axford, twenty of them are no longer closing for their team. Since the beginning of 2014 spring training, six projected starting closers have already been demoted, and another seven have spent time on the disabled list. The Angels' Ernesto Frieri was the latest to lose his job, earlier this week, to veteran sidearmer Joe Smith. This year's strange new cast of characters has a retro feel: The major league leader in saves is 32-year-old Francisco Rodriguez, who, 12 years after his World Series heroics with the Angels, has reinvented himself in Milwaukee, with a devastating changeup and 16 scoreless innings to start the season. LaTroy Hawkins, 41, is excelling as the Rockies' closer, and the new finisher for the Mets is 38-year-old Kyle Farnsworth, the team's third closer in less than a month (and next up in the Mets' carousel may be Daisuke Matsuzaka).

They come and go, they get hurt, they vanish into thin air. As closers' roles have become more specialized in the modern bullpen, injuries have risen, even though the physical demands for the job has eased. But ask players and coaches and they'll insist that another reason why closers now have such short shelf lives is because the job can take so much out of you mentally. A closer in this era will pitch about five percent of his team's innings over the course of a season and spends the rest of the time waiting, dealing with the waves of anxiety and the inevitable anguish that comes with a blown save. "The irony, of course, is that as it's become more specialized, it's become a more pressurized role, and when you talk about the volatility of the position, I think the mental toll has become as much of an issue as the physical toll," said an AL executive. "It's something that we've been certainly aware of when we think about who can do the job for us."

Trevor Hoffman had a routine after a blown save: He would reflect on what had happened in the dugout, answer questions from the media in front of his locker (even after his worst performances), then would try to find a positive takeaway from the night. "Trevor always had this part of him when he was preparing for the game, you could just watch him prepare himself mentally for the game. His physical actions, what he was doing while mentally preparing, was something very interesting to me," said Axford, who took over in Milwaukee for the all-time saves leader during the 2010 season. "You could just tell he was taking whatever thoughts he had, holding into good ones and tossing out bad thoughts. It was something I was learning from him. You're trying to throw a fastball away, and you're wanting to visualize a fastball away and being there for a strike and a swing and a miss. If you're visualizing a guy barreling up and hitting a double into the gap, that's not a good thing. Once that negative thought creeps into your head, you're in trouble."

A part of Axford's success going back to his time in St. Louis last year came with mechanical adjustments that improved his control, as well as tweaks to his delivery to address issues of tipping pitches. But Axford says the other part was controlling the game within the game. Following his breakout 2011 season, Axford said, "I just tried to focus on the failures too much, on the negative side too much. After a blown save or a tough day on the mound, I'd always like to reflect and take it in as much as I can, or think about it as much as I can, at the ballpark, at the hotel. That method for me just lingered a little bit longer than it should have. I think my approach is much different now."

It's May, much too early to say whether Axford has returned to elite status, whether K-Rod will keep pitching like it's 2004, whether David Robertson can make people forget Mariano Rivera, or if Craig Kimbrel can continue to be the best closer in baseball. A closer like Axford only knows that there will always be good nights and there will always be bad nights. "That fine line between success and failure," said Axford, "is exactly why you can love this job one moment and hate it the next."

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