Each year at FanFest a group of select bloggers, chosen by the cleanliness of their mother's basement, are invited to chat with a couple players and exactly one David Forst. More on the conversation with Forst later, but today I report back on our 15 minute conversation with relievers Marc Rzepczynski and John Axford.
I lof them.
Now to put this in proper perspective, two years ago I met Jim Johnson at BlogFest and really liked him...until he started pitching and then...it just didn't go very well, did it? So time will tell whether this report is "great guy, do we have to let him pitch?" or "great guy, great pitcher, happy dance!"
Axford won me over before the first question when he sat down, saw my 1980s radio shack cassette recorder, and became immediately enamored with it. I believe the first words of this 15-minute segment were, "Awesome!" uttered by Axford about the recorder. At the end Axford "timidly" asked if he could push the stop button, and he did so with such ease -- dare I say "panache"? -- that I am ready to anoint him with a scouting report of "quick learner".
But no, that's not why I fell in love with "Zep" (as Axford called him) and Axford. They were both charming, friendly, engaging (I won't say which one I'm now engaged to; that's nobody's business), and articulate. These are all qualities that go a long way to getting major league hitters out. If only. They are, however, qualities that help fans to welcome players into their hearts and root even harder for their success.
Asked about the difference between closing and setting up, Axford pointed out that he closed (25 saves) in 2015 for all the wrong reasons: injuries to the guy who was supposed to close. Sound familiar? Now Axford joins Ryan Madson as backup plans to presumptive closer Sean Doolittle. (Liam Hendriks does not have a big league save.)
But what inning or role seems less important to Axford than just having an idea of what to expect. "Whether it's the 6th, 7th, or 8th, I think when you have guys in the back end (of the bullpen) in their solidified spots, I think it just helps no matter what," Axford offers. "It helps my mindset to know where I'm going to be pitching. You don't want to put too much pressure on yourself in the 7th, you don't want to put too much pressure on yourself in the 9th -- just get your 3 outs as quickly as you can."
The difference between preparing for "maybe the 7th" or the "definitely the 9th"? "My routines are a little more formulated when I'm in the 9th, because generally you know you're going to start that inning," Axford explains. "When you're in the 7th or 8th obviously you could be coming in the middle of that inning. But the buildup before the game, the mental approach is the same in the bullpen. For me it will just start a little bit earlier: If I'm pitching the 9th it will start in the 7th, if I'm pitching the 8th it's going to start in the 6th. If I'm unsure if it will be the 6th or the 7th I'll start a couple innings earlier than that. You just have to be on your toes and be ready."
Especially if you're a lefty specialist like Rzepczynski. His whole career has pretty much been, "Be ready anytime, k?" "I think the last couple years I've been top 5 coming in with guys on base, so that's my job: come in the middle of an inning and get a guy out" Rzepczynski says. "But if the starter gets out of (the inning), or another reliever gets out of it, I sit back down and if a lefty comes up again I'll get up the next inning."
Asked if that up-and-down in the bullpen was a problem, Rzepczynski boasted, "I can get ready in 5 pitches. I can literally get ready in 'a batter' if you need me to." This suggests that a game of Name That Tune is in order. Can you get ready in 4 pitches? How about 3? I see a whole new landscape of Fantasy Bullpen emerging here. On the flip side, Rzepczynski notes, "I can get up 4 times in a game and not even get in sometimes" -- again, great fodder for Fantasy Bullpen ("Dang it! I had Rzepczynski getting up 3 times without coming in. Why didn't Melvin get him up one more time???")
In contrast, Axford says he has "huge amount of respect for guys that are able to just turn it on and turn it off that quickly. For me, when I get into the mindset it's hard for me to get out. It's hard for me to come down from (the adrenaline)...If I jump back out and now I have to get ready again I might not be as mentally prepared as I should be. Some guys have that ability, and it's tremendous and amazing to me that they can keep doing that, but for me I really have to try to maintain that focus because if I don't I'll lose it."
All of which suggests that Bob Melvin is wise to take a crash course on these key differences between the many new relievers entrusted with locking down games in 2016. And then there's the part that happens not between the white lines, but after..."After I pitch, after the game's done I'll even go home and it's hard for me to come down," Axford acknlowedges. "I'm generally the last one in the clubhouse because I don't want to go home and still be thinking about what just happened, whether it was good or bad. My adrenaline and my focus is so high that it takes me a long time to come down from it, so I just need to sit and linger and (let things) fester."
In contrast, "Sometimes I don't even have time to get the adrenaline going!" Rzepczynski counters. "Literally. A lot of times I go out there and I'm going, 'OK, that's it...' I've kind of adapted that (less flexible, less intense) mindset because I've had to, because I'm getting up more times than not. And sometimes I'll give up a ground ball base hit through the 4-hole and it's like...heeeeey, ok, there's my day." Rzepczynski adds, "My job's different, obviously, than most guys'. It's a very specialty role that takes a different kind of breed. You have to have a short memory because sometimes you're out there the next day facing the same guy for the whole series. He's gonna get his hits against you, and you're gonna get him out, so it's kind of bittersweet for me." A bittersweet existence: the life of a LOOGY. (Sounds like something that should air "after a very special 'Blossom'....")
Asked why they chose Oakland, Rzepczynski laughed and said "I got traded here. So I kinka had no choice," before quickly adding how happy he was to be here (he did not, however, confirm whether or not he was in the "best shape of his life"). Axford did have options, and apparently also a compass that keeps leaning west. "I had a few different choices. Denver, there was an opportunity there once again, but...I keep going farther west, it appears. I love the Bay Area, I haven't heard anything bad about the organization. And the club has been good -- obviously last year was a difficult year. Watching that from the other side, hearing about the one-run games every time you turn around on Sports Center, but then knowing what the team was able to do the previous seasons getting to the playoffs, you know the team's good and you know sometimes bad luck just happens."
For Axford, part of the draw seems to be joining a new "big 5" of relievers -- especially after knowing how much the A's bullpen struggled in 2015. "Getting to the playoffs is really important to me," Axford says, "and solidifying a bullpen. I signed after the trade of (Liam) Hendriks, after Zep came over, after (Ryan) Madson, Sean (Doolittle) is already here. Seeing that all of a sudden come together and wanting to be a part of a group of guys who can be really formidable in the back end of the bullpen...that's really key for me."
Then Rzepczynski mentioned something about growing up an Angels fan but I kind of tried not to listen. I did, however, regain attention as Rzepczynski noted "I've been traded 4 times now, but this is the first time in the off-season where I've been traded. I get to meet the whole group of guys coming in and don't have to get thrown into the fire right away."
All in all, Axford reminded me a bit of Brandon McCarthy: an intellectual with a refined sense of humor trapped in an athlete's body. Rzepczynski seemed like he would be a fun guy with whom to share a beer or 50 gallons of lube. So far so good: now make sure you also get a bunch of guys out this year!
Check out athleticsfarm.com to see one BlogFest writeup on our interview with David Forst, and look for more on that interview on AN in the coming days.