After taking over the closer role for an ineffective Trevor Hoffman in late May of 2010, John Axford was lights out through the 2011 season. Unfortunately for the Brew Crew, the magic couldn’t last and a severe care of gopheritis reared its ugly head the following year. Despite posting similar skills, Axford’s ERA ballooned to 4.67 as a result. But, he limped through the season and still managed to save 35 games.
With memories of Axford’s problems with the long ball still in the minds of many, he proceeded to open the 2013 season in much the same way. He allowed nine runs in his first 3.1 innings, and gave up a whopping four home runs. It wasn’t long before Axford was removed from the closer role and Jim Henderson replaced him.
The funny thing is, the two aren’t that different. Both throw hard and both struggle with their control at times. But Henderson was an extreme fly ball pitcher last season, which will make you hold your breath.
Henderson is your prototypical closer. He features a 95+ mph fastball and complements it with a slider. His fastball has been fantastic, generating a SwStk% of about 14% throughout his short career. That level is typically reserved for changeups and sliders. Curiously, his slider has only been about average from the perspective of inducing swinging strikes. Of course, if his slider was real good to go along with that killer fastball, he would challenge for best pitcher of all time!
As alluded to earlier, control has been Henderson’s biggest bugaboo. His 48.6% F-Strike% was positively hideous and the third worst among all pitchers who threw at least 40 innings. But given his always exceptional strikeout rates, his walk rates have been acceptable. The worry of course is that he loses velocity like all pitchers do, making his fastball less effective, and causing his walks to be more damaging.
The other concern is the potential for platoon issues. He’s a fastball/slider guy, and sliders typically aren’t very effective against opposite-handed batters. But his splits are strange. Though he’s allowed an inflated .338 wOBA against lefties (versus just a .219 mark against righties), his xFIPs are much closer at 3.35 and 2.91, respectively. So from a skills perspective, he has performed admirably against lefties, but a sky high BABIP and a HR/FB rate that doubles compared to righties drove the wOBA difference. So at least so far, featuring the slider as his second pitch hasn’t hurt him in his handling of left-handers.
It is certainly understandable to be nervous about Henderson moving forward, but the Brewers have no real alternatives. While Brandon Kintzler was excellent last season, his skill set is the type that doesn’t typically lead to a closing gig, except for the rare exceptions like Jim Johnson, who is quite similar. Henderson has his warts, but he should finish firmly in the middle tier of closers, with some value upside given his strikeout rate.
Mike Podhorzer is the 2015 Fantasy Sports Writers Association Baseball Writer of the Year. He produces player projections using his own forecasting system and is the author of the eBook Projecting X 2.0: How to Forecast Baseball Player Performance, which teaches you how to project players yourself. His projections helped him win the inaugural 2013 Tout Wars mixed draft league. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikePodhorzer and contact him via email.