The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of: Dylan Axelrod

Many popular opinions of pitching prospects are formed from general scouting reports. While these reports are invaluable resources, they can’t always be trusted. Hundreds of minor league hurlers are credited with “mid-90′s velocity,” but very few MLB starters actually have that grade of heat, for example. It’s incredibly frustrating to hear about a pitcher with “a mid-90′s heater and plus curve,” only to have him come up to the big leagues and show a fastball that averages 90.5 mph and a slider.

When a pitcher come up to the majors, we can finally get a foolproof reading on what exactly his arsenal is comprised of, thanks to the great Pitch F/X system. In this series, I analyze just that–the “stuff” of recently-promoted MLB pitchers. Now that they’ve achieved their big league dreams and thus factor directly into the MLB picture, it’s high time that we know exactly what these guys are providing.

This time, I’m taking a look at White Sox starter Dylan Axelrod.

Dylan Axelrod’s been a favorite sleeper prospect of mine this season, and I’ve written a considerable amount about him. Of all the pitchers I’ve tackled in this series, he’s thrown the fewest MLB pitches by far, as he has just one start (six innings) and one relief appearance (two innings). Even though most of the pitchers I’ve looked at have under thirty MLB frames, that’s still not too much to go on.

It’s enough to discuss Axelrod, though, because he’s a pretty simple pitcher to figure out. He’s got a 90-mph fastball, a hellacious slider…and that’s pretty much it.

A former Padres late-round pick, the righthander was used exclusively as a reliever in their system, and was ultimately released in 2009. He pitched in independent ball that season, and the White Sox picked him up in 2010 and let him start games; <2 years later, here we are. Since that’s quite the winding road to the majors, Axelrod was never considered much of a prospect, and on top of that, he’s a short righty, which is guaranteed to make scouts ignore him. His performance was so excellent in 2010 and 2011 that it pushed him to the majors regardless; still, most casual observers were expecting to see a pure finesse pitcher.

In his first outing, Axelrod threw two innings in relief, and it looked like the “finesse pitcher” tag was quite accurate. He threw nearly as many sliders as fastballs, and his heater averaged just 89.4 mph. The logical conclusion to draw was that, as a starter, he would need to a) pace himself, so his velocity would likely drop to 87-88, b) use his slider less, and c) break out a third pitch.

The truly interesting thing about Axelrod’s first major league start, in which he struck out eight batters in six strong innings against a solid Detroit lineup, was that none of those three things happened. His velocity was actually higher than it was in the relief outing, as he worked at 89-91 and touched 92, averaging exactly 90.0 mph and holding that velocity through the end of his outing. He continued to throw the same percentage of sliders–43 of 93 pitches–and only tossed three changeups.

If Axelrod keeps throwing his slider 46% of the time, he’ll be the only starting pitcher anywhere close to that sort of rate; no pitcher with three or more starts in 2011 has used a slider over 40% of the time.

It’s an absolutely filthy pitch, coming in at 81-84 mph with hard, late, two-plane break. In the 55 he’s thrown thus far in the big leagues, 41 have gone for strikes, and 11 of 30 swings on the pitch have resulted in whiffs. He tends to work down and away with the pitch to both lefties and righties, but isn’t afraid to work both sides of the plate with the pitch.

Axelrod’s fastball is interesting. It’s not an impressive pitch in terms of velocity, and while it has solid movement, it’s not going to induce a bunch of swings and misses. Then again, Axelrod is one of the very few starting pitchers in the majors who basically uses his fastball as an offspeed pitch, set up by his breaking ball. Essentially, his aim with the heater is to either a) get the batter to chase a bad pitch out of the zone and roll over or b) think the ball is going to break when it isn’t, and thus watch strike three.

In contrast with the slider’s high strike rate and high swing rate, then, Axelrod throws a lot of balls with the fastball (56.7% strikes), but nearly half of those are looking (31.7% swing rate). Yes, he only has induced one whiff in 60 fastballs, but his goal with the pitch is to either get weak contact on a pitcher’s pitch or simply move the count more in his favor.

It’s a savvy approach, and while Axelrod is to be applauded for bringing more preparedness to the mound than many of the other pitchers I’ve discussed in this series, we should also remember that he’s 26 and thus has to in order to be taken seriously–many of the others I’ve looked at will have optimized their approaches to a similar (if more conventional) degree by the time they’re his age.

Axelrod did throw three changeups in the game against the Tigers, and the pitch showed some serious drop–a good six inches below his fastball. On film, the pitch looks pretty nasty (you can see it around the 0:50 mark in Axelrod’s highlight video here), and it’s worth wondering if he ought to break it out more.

In sum, this is a 26-year-old righty who isn’t likely to get any better, but has one plus pitch, two potentially average offerings, and good mound poise, control, and pitch sequencing. That’s enough for a long major league career, but the elephant in the room is how Axelrod, a pitcher generously listed at 6’0″, can survive throwing a slider–often cited as the most stressful pitch in baseball–nearly half the time. Even putting aside the injury concerns, one has to wonder if such a one-trick act will play against teams once the scouting reports get out.

One positive to note with regard to the injury concerns is that Axelrod, like many small control pitchers, has a clean, easy delivery and arm action–it almost looks like he’s casually playing catch out there. If you’re going to throw a breaking ball half the time as a starting pitcher, you better at least be throwing it with clean mechanics.

As for the second issue, it’s certainly something to keep in mind as Axelrod settles in as a big-league starter, but if guys like Jamie Moyer, Livan Hernandez, Mark Buehrle, and Shaun Marcum can carve out long, successful careers on smoke-and-mirrors, there’s no sense in ruling out Axelrod’s potential to do the same, especially when he’s got a good three miles per hour on all four of those pitchers, and a better breaking ball than any of them. I certainly would like to see him work in the changeup more, particularly to lefties, but I could definitely see him continuing to succeed with a 50% fastball, 35% slider, 15% changeup approach–in fact, the slider would play up even more with a usage decrease.

It will be very interesting to follow this rather unique pitcher as he looks to establish himself in the majors, particularly since his first impressions have gone so well.

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Tags: Chicago White Sox Dylan Axelrod

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