Detroit Tigers Trade Deadline Target: John Axford


May 21, 2013; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Milwaukee Brewers pitcher John Axford pitches during the game against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Miller Park. Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

The All-Star festivities are over, the second half of the season is about to begin, and we can turn our attention in earnest over to the pennant run. Just 68 games remain in the season and, with the (non-waier) trade deadline just 13 days away, teams and fans are out in force hunting for players that will put their club over the top.

For the Detroit Tigers, potential trade deadline targets appear simple. The offense has been one of the league’s best, the starting rotation is excellent, and the only hole to be found probably rests in the bullpen. Joaquin Benoit nas nailed down the closer spot as tightly as possible and Drew Smyly has solidified the eighth inning, but Detroit could use another arm or two back there to help get the ball to them in close games. Bruce Rondon has been fairly good in his most recent stint with the big club, but he’s an unknown quantity going forward, and no one else in the bullpen would inspire any sort of confidence in a seventh inning hold situation.

One player that could help out fill a late-inning spot is Milwaukee Brewers reliever John Axford. According to Danny Knobler, the Tigers have had scouts in Milwaukee. That doesn’t mean a trade is necessarily on the horizon, but it could mean that they’re taking a look at someone.

Axford hasn’t been particularly effective the last two years – he’s combined a 4.33 ERA in 108 innings – but a change of scenery could do him some good. I usually scoff at the concept of change of scenery candidates – the concept that a new environment would suddenly and drastically change a player’s outcomes – but, in this case, a change of scenery from Milwaukee to Detroit would include a change of ballparks. And, as Prince Fielder is finding out, it’s a lot harder to hit home runs at Comerica Park than Miller Park if you’re a left-handed batter.

Axford’s struggles this season have come for two main reasons: he’s walked a ton of batters on the road and allowed a ton of home runs at home. That’s not a good combination – and the only real solution to walking batters on the road is to “not do it anymore” (analysis!) – but the home runs at home thing could potentially be improved by acquiring a new home park.

Here’s a quick (and incomplete) breakdown of Axford’s season:

  • He’s allowed five home runs at home (98 PA) and one on the road (74 PA).
  • He’s allowed four home runs to left-handed batters (85 PA) and two to right-handed batters (87 PA).

We’re only talking about six home runs on the season, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but that makes for a HR/9 rate of 1.4 which is more than 50% higher than the average MLB reliever. The particular struggle is left-handed hitters, and the even more particular struggle is when pitching at home.

Here’s how a change of scenery would help. Miller Park is the seventh most homer friendly park in all of baseball (using FanGraphs component park factors), boosting home runs by about 6%. Comerica Park, on the other hand, is pretty much homer-neutral, inflating home runs by only 1% (14th in MLB)*. That’s a sizeable difference, but the biggest difference comes when looking at the two parks by batter handedness.

*An explanation of park factors can be found here.

Axford struggles against lefty batters (which is natural since he’s right-handed), but matters are made worse by the fact that Miller Park is the third-most homer friendly park for left-handed hitters with a component park factor of 113 (100 is average). Comerica Park, on the other hand, suppresses home runs from left-handed hitters, with a park factor of 99 (still wondering where all of Fielder’s home runs went?).

This difference may or may not have even resulted in a reduction of even one full home run for Axford this year, but a pitcher who struggles with the home run ball at home – particularly against left-handed batters – could expect instant improvement by moving from Miller Park to Comerica Park. The move wouldn’t completely fix Axford, but it could make him appear more attractive than his current numbers indicate.

Trade cost is always the big question – how many prospects, and of what type – but it doesn’t appear that Axford would command a huge return. He signed an arbitration-avoiding deal for $5 million this year (as a first-year arbitration eligible player) which is a lot of money for a non-closer who’s struggling. The allure of pre-free agency players is that they’re usually team controlled and cost controlled, but the latter isn’t the case with Axford. I don’t think any team would see gaining the option to pay him $5+ million in each of the next two years as an extra incentive to acquire him. We’d probably be talking nothing higher than a mid-level prospect in return for Axford.