John Axford: From the IBL to potential Rookie-of-the-Year

Okay, I’ll admit it.  The title of this post is a bit of a misnomer.  With Buster Posey & Jason Heyward playing out of their heads, Canadian John Axford has no chance at winning the 2010 Rookie of the Year award.  But if he were in the American League? It might be a different story.

Since taking over the Milwaukee Brewers closer’s role from the faltering Trevor Hoffman, the mustachioed 6’5″ 195lbs. Axford has racked up 20 saves. Axford is somewhat of an unknown to most baseball fans.  Where did this guy come from?  Like many overnight successes, there is a back-story of a lot of hard work involved.

Axford first showed up on the Canadian baseball radar when he pitched for  Team Ontario. A prized high school pitching prospect, he impressed scouts by being able to throw a 96mph fastball with hard breaking stuff.    He parlayed his success into a scholarship at Notre Dame where he pitched for 3 years, despite being drafted by the Seattle Mariners in 2001.

In his 3rd year Axford tore his ulnar collateral ligament, requiring Tommy John reconstructive surgery.  Axford took longer than most to recover from the surgery and as a result his scholarship was not renewed.   Despite this tremendous setback, Axford was still drafted by the Cincinatti Reds in the 2005 MLB entry draft.  This was the scouting report on him at the time:

RHP John Axford flashed first-round potential in the Cape Cod League in 2003, but had Tommy John surgery that December. He has been slow to come back, missing all of 2004 and working just three innings this spring. He had a low-90s fastball and a plus curveball before he got hurt, though his command was sporadic. Because he’s a redshirt junior, a team could take him as a draft-and-follow.

John Axford and other Brewers pitchers discuss their Tommy John surgeries

Axford didn’t sign.

As a result of his scholarship not being renewed, Axford transferred to New York state’s Canisius College, a popular school for Canadian collegiate ballplayers. That season Axford was 3 -8 with a 5.01 earned run average in 14 starts. Axford walked 75 and struck out 75 in 70 innings.  That summer he pitched in the Western Baseball League, an independent Canadian circuit.  That same year Axford signed with the Brantford Red Sox of the Intercounty Baseball League (IBL), an independent league based in Ontario.   Although he struggled in his only start for Brantford (4IP, 5BB, 7H, 5ER, 1HR, 6K) he managed to open the eyes of some scouts, including the Milwaukee Brewers.

Axford struck out plenty of hitters in the Western Baseball League, enough so that the New York Yankees were impressed enough with his peripheral numbers to sign him as a free agent late in the 2006 season.  The Yankees intended to use him to fill out the depth chart on their minor league rosters.  

After seeing Axford pitch live in a game, Yankees minor league director Pat Roessler said to him “you keep spotting your fastball the way you’re doing and you’ll be a big leaguer.” Unfortunately for John, he was unable to spot the fastball.  Across all levels he pitched in in the Yankees organization, Axford put up a walk rate of 6.4 BB per 9 innings pitched.  The only other 2 pitchers in all of baseball to have a walk rate that high were Dontrelle Willis and Oliver Perez.  Axford was subsequently released.

“They told me in all honesty they had time and money invested in other players and it probably would be better for me to go to another organization.”

Following the season Axford continued to work out indoors while bartending at East Side Mario’s in Dundas, Ontario.  Those same Brewers scouts who watched him play in Brantford were tipped off to his indoor workouts.  Brewers scout Jay Lapp then arranged a private workout at The Baseball Zone in Mississauga. 

“It was surprising that he’d been released,” said Lapp, who recommended the right-hander to Brewers’ assistant-GM Gord Ash following the workout.

Ash invited Axford to the Brewers’ spring training facility in Arizona to get a closer look at him. He was signed in march of 2008 and assigned to Brevard County of the high-A Florida State League.

Axford struggled in 2008 as the control problems that plagued him at Canisius showed up again.  Axford was 5-10 with a 4.55 ERA walking 73 and striking out 89 in 95 innings. Things weren’t looking good for a 25 year old failed prospect stuck in the Florida State League. 

“We knew we were getting a guy that had a good live arm, but there were a lot of mechanical issues with him,” Brewers GM Bob Melvin said. “There were some up and down moments and some times when we weren’t sure he was going to throw enough strikes.”

“If [pitchers] have good live arms and their walk rates are high, I think you’ve got to be patient,” Melvin said. “One of the toughest things in the game is to be patient.”

However, in 2009 things Axford got the magic back.  Coming out of spring training, the Brewers decided Axford was best suited to a relief role and assigned up to Brevard County again to repeat the level.  The Brewers tinkered with a few mechanical flaws in Axford’s delivery and his walk rate dropped.

“Guys with good arms, I say the same thing,” Melvin said. “Their walks can be reduced once they feel comfortable with their deliveries.”

Axford hit the ground running in a breakout year.  He raced through 3 minor league levels on his way to a September callup with Milwaukee. His walk rate? A career-low 3.1 per 9IP.  He made his big league debut on September 15th at Wrigley Field vs. the Cubs in the 8th inning.

“Everyone told me to soak it all in,” Axford said. “I walked three guys, allowed a run and I think I only remember three pitches that I threw.”

“The first pitch was a strike to Bobby Scales, a curve ball to strikeout Kosuke Fukudome and a ball that got away from me and almost hit Derek Lee in the head.”

Combining his numbers at single-A Brevard, AA Huntsville and AAA Nashville, Axford went 9-1 in relief with a 2.43 ERA. He got his control back; Axford walked 38 and struck out 89 in 68 1/3 innings.  With Milwaukee he posted a 3.52 ERA and held opposing hitters to a .179 BAA in 7 relief appearances.  The cherry on top was inducing an Albert Pujols pop-up in the bottom of the 10th inning on the final day of the 2009 season.

“Bring that with you next spring,” said Brewers manager Ken Macha.

And bring it with him he did.

Axford showed up in Peoria in spring training throwing smoke, striking out 7 and walking only 2.  Although he didn’t make the opening day roster,  Axford pitched well at AAA Nashville, striking out 19 while walking only 5 in 13 innings.  His mid 90’s fastball was back with a mid 80’s slider and 80 mph curve.

John Axford strikes out Justin Morneau for the save

With legendary closer Trevor Hoffman struggling to begin the season, going 5 for 10 in save opportunities with a 12.21 ERA, Axford was given the closer’s role temporarily to allow Hoffman to take a breather.

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

Axford has gained significant notoriety with his reliability in closing out games, not to mention significant popularity with the ladies for his magical mustache.

In fact, Axford’s mustache has its own Facebook page. The mustache can also be found on Twitter.  Its bio states: “The talk of Milwaukee…Best ride in town. A real ladies’ stache.”  Sad to say that the mustache is no more – Axford was only growing it until he got to see his wife, Nicole, who he hadn’t seen since spring training.  It has now morphed into a goatee.

Axford works a 5-out save

Axford hass given up only 1 HR in 55 major league innings and walked 27.  It just goes to show that if you strike out enough guys and keep the ball in the yard, you can get away with a few extra walks.  Axford’s career path has been anything but conventional, and if he does succeed in a high-leverage role, it certainly wouldn’t be the first time that a reliever emerges out of relative obscurity.  This is another story that serves as incentive to keep perservering through life’s obstacles and to never give up on your dream.

Trevor Hoffman is carried off the field after saving his 600th game, John Axford looks on

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has written for Mopupduty.com since 2006. Follow Callum on Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram (@callumhughson)

  • Didn’t know he’s from Ontario. I have him in my fantasy league. Good stuff.

  • Great story, talk about perseverance.

    It’s a long shot but if Axford can reach the 10 win mark he has a shot at ROY.

    Building on that note he had 10 decisions in 2009, has 8 in the MLB this season and had 5 (3-2) in just 12 games in AAA in 2010. He must get used in nothing but high leverage, tie game & closing situations.

    If the Jays took this story and acquired Axford he could become a box office attraction.

    • This is an different issue entirely, but I don’t think any of the Canadians with feel-good stories (Scott Richmond) or Canadians in general who played for the Blue Jays (Quantrill, Corey Koskie, Matt Stairs, the Butlers, Spoljaric, Ducey) had any sort of impact on the box office whatsoever.

      Add Shawn Hill to the mix, who starts tonight. I doubt we’ll see more than 11,000 fans.