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Draft Round Battles: Rodney Vs. Axford

Here's my working theory for Fernando Rodney's 2012 season.  When Mariano Rivera blew out his ACL on May 3, he decided to bestow the Closer's Matrix Of Leadership on to Rodney since...well, I don't know, maybe Mo has a soft spot for Joe Maddon.  Anyway, after taking the Matrix in a ceremony that presumably involved both men singing "The Touch," Rodney turned into Rodimus Prime and proceeded to dominate the ninth inning as few closers ever have, posting an 0.58 ERA over 62 1/3 innings after May 3.

Granted, the theory has a few holes.  For one, Rodney already had an 0.73 ERA in 14 games before May 3.  Secondly, the Closer's Matrix Of Leadership may be (MAY BE) completely fictional.  But still, I'm at a loss to think of any other reason for Rodney's incredible, improbable all-timer of a 2012 season.  The longtime journeyman reliever suddenly exploded with one of the best relief seasons in baseball history and became the best example yet as to why nobody is better at bullpen reclamation projects than the Tampa Bay Rays.

Of course, the problem with a Cinderella season is that everyone presumes midnight is about to strike.  On Roto Authority alone, Bryan Grosnick has called Rodney's season "somewhat of a mirage" while Steve Adams labelled Rodney as a bust simply because there is so little chance that Rodney has suddenly eliminated all his bad habits and turned into an elite pitcher at 35 years old.  Most notably, Rodney carried a career 4.9 BB/9 from 2002-11 and then posted only a 1.8 BB/9 in 2012 --- does anyone think that will happen again, or that Rodney will be helped by another .220 BABIP?

Let's compare Rodney's advanced metrics with those of his Draft Round Battle opponent, Brewers stopper John Axford...

Rodney: 2.13 FIP, 2.67 xFIP, 2.24 SIERA, .220 BABIP, 9.2 K/9, 1.8 BB/9, 27% strikeout rate, 57.9% ground ball rate

Axford: 4.06 FIP, 3.29 xFIP, 3.10 SIERA, .307 BABIP, 12.1 K/9, 5.1 BB/9, 30% strikeout rate, 46.3% ground ball rate

Rodney is clearly better overall but it's a closer gap than you would at first suspect given Rodney's all-world season and that Axford temporarily lost his job as Milwaukee's stopper.  Axford posted a 4.67 ERA but, as the metrics show, he didn't really pitch that badly aside from a bump in walks, and Axford had been a bit prone to free passes (3.7 BB/9 from 2009-11) even before 2012.

Of course, the one metric I left off that list was Axford's achilles heel for 2012 --- the long ball.  Axford's HR/9 jumped from 0.3 over his first three seasons to a 1.3 HR/9 in 2012 and a whopping 19.2% of his fly balls allowed went for homers.  Oddly, Axford's fly ball rate (29.7%) was a new career low, so it's possible he may have been a victim of his home turf; by the park factor metrics, no stadium was more homer-friendly than Miller Park in 2012. 

After breaking out in 2010 and delivering a strong 2011 season, it seemed like Axford was establishing himself as one of those reliable closers you could pencil in for 30+ saves and strong peripherals every year.  He certainly took a step back last year but it hasn't hurt him greatly in this spring's early fantasy drafts.  Mock Draft Central's latest average draft position report places Axford as the fifth closer taken and the 105th player drafted overall (108.89 ADP). 

He is one spot behind, you guessed it, Rodney, who checks in as the 89th overall player drafted with a 92.53 ADP.  I was a bit surprised to see Rodney that high given the seemingly universal reservations that everyone has about him for 2013.  MDC's numbers, however, are generated by mock drafts that feature pretty hardcore fantasy managers, so this isn't a case where Rodney's draft spot was boosted by auto-drafting or newbies who are dazzled by an 0.60 ERA.  It speaks to the overall volatility of the closer's position that, for as many question marks as these guys have, every closer behind them on the list also carries a lot of uncertainty headed into next season.

So our choice is between a guy with a long history of being average coming off one magnificent season against a guy with a short history of brilliance coming off a pretty average season.  It's a tough call.  For as much as critics cite Rodney's past, don't forget that Axford is still very much an unproven entity.  His rise from bartending and cellphone sales to a Major League closing job is a great story but it wouldn't be surprising if Axford joins the long list of closers who ended up on the scrap heap after one or two good years.

That said, I would recommend Axford as the better pick on draft day because, while we've seen both he and Rodney pitch at their best, I'd prefer to have Axford if he pitches at his "worst."  Even if Axford duplicates his 2012 season, he'll still help your team by racking up K's and collecting his share of saves.  If Rodney pitches to his low (such as his 2010-11 seasons) then he's not worth having on your fantasy roster.  There's also the fact that if Axford struggles a bit, he's not likely to lose his closer's job against since Francisco Rodriguez isn't there as a backup option for the Brewers.  Rodney doesn't have that luxury in Tampa Bay as Maddon won't hesitate to make a switch at closer if things are going awry. 

After Craig Kimbrel goes, your draft is likely going to see four or five rounds go by before managers start dipping back into the closer pool.  Past Jonathan Papelbon and Jason Motte, any of the six next guys on the ADP list (Rodney, Axford, Joe Nathan, Rivera, J.J. Putz, Sergio Romo) could be the next closer taken and it wouldn't be a surprise.  A healthy (and presumably re-Matrixed) Rivera, for instance, has more fantasy value than Rodney or Axford.  If you get the chance to pick between Rodimus Prime and the Ax Man, I would take Axford since there's less chance that the bottom will fall out on his performance. 

Also, if I'm nice to Axford, he might randomly show up at my apartment and teach me how to grow a sweet mustache.  You can't put a fantasy value on that.

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