At the moment, Dylan Axelrod is enjoying the longest stretch of sustained success in his career. Uncoincidentally, this is the longest stretch of sustained play he has had in his career. Six unmolested turns through the rotation has left him on the verge of matching the number of starts he had all of last season and with four quality starts (one out away from a fifth) and a 3.60 ERA to show for it. If Gavin Floyd had put together such a run, I’d call in sick for a week just to berate his legion of doubters within the White Sox fanbase on Twitter 28 hours per day.
Or maybe I wouldn’t be. Maybe I’d be concerned.
Dylan Axelrod has the worst xFIP of any qualified starter in baseball. To get it out of the way, xFIP is basically an ERA estimation tool based on a pitchers’ strikeouts, walks and fly ball rate. There’s the rub that you have to be good enough to remain a qualified starter to remain on the qualified starter list. And there’s also the rub that xFIP is just one metric and look no farther than the magic of Jesse Crain for an example of someone defying xFIP over a long stretch of time.
But the worst is notable. Worst requires some extreme conditions. xFIP is a metric that typically yields pretty conservative results and Axelrod’s 5.43 mark is not very conservative. That’s projecting him to be a very below-average pitcher. It’s a worse mark than old friend, fellow strikeout abstainer and recent emblem of the failure of the Toronto Blue Jays Mark Buehrle is sporting. And Mark is not doing so well.
The reason for the poor rating is strikeouts. Axelrod has struck out 16 of the 148 batters he’s faced, which gives him the second-worst rate for qualified starters. His last start on May 4 against the Royals, essentially his magnum opus, saw him go deeper into a game than he’s ever been (7.2 IP) without allowing any runs after yielding two in the first inning. However, he also went without a strikeout. He threw 113 pitches and only got five swing-and-misses.
Now, Dylan Axelrod was never Dwight Gooden in terms of strikeouts, but in his previous two stints in the big leagues, he had a pretty useful slider that he liked to throw nearly 40% of the time. It was a good practice, since it was his one, strong plus-pitch that batters swung-and-missed at 20.4% of the time last season. That’s sunk down to 8.8% this season in a sample that’s already half as large, with indication that he’s lost four inches of vertical break on it according to Texas Leaguers.
That’s just not a good development at all for a guy who didn’t have many reliable tools to begin with. Axelrod’s control has remained solid this year, but there’s little in his contact profile that suggests he’s in for much besides a world of hurt if he can’t get back to spinning those breakers like he used to. Of course, the Angels are coming to town, so he may have some time left before he really needs to fix his issues.
However, if John Danks’ eventual return to the rotation will inevitably force out a successful starter that the team believes to have the least opportunity to be successful going forward, smart money is on the guy whose out-pitch is on the fritz.
Follow James Fegan on Twitter @JRFegan