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Early blown saves not necessarily cause for concern

Save percentage down from 2013, but slow starts not uncommon for closers

CLEVELAND -- The best season of John Axford's career began with a 54.00 ERA.

Axford's first outing in 2011 was a March 31 letdown in Cincinnati in which he was entrusted by the Brewers with a three-run lead in the ninth. He put two runners aboard, gave up a sac fly and a three-run blast to Ramon Hernandez and that was that. Two outs, four runs and an ERA he'd spend the rest of the summer whittling down.

"When those things compound, it's not a good way to start the season," Axford said. "As a closer and a reliever in general, you feel for guys who have that happen early, because you know how much of a struggle it is to get back to the numbers you're capable of pitching at."

Axford -- 2-for-2 in save situations for the Indians entering Friday -- is off to a better start in 2014. But he's one of the few closers who can say so.

Through Thursday's games, saves had been converted at just a 54.3 percent (25-for-46) clip. To put that in perspective, no team -- not even the 111-loss Astros and their lowly bullpen -- had a save percentage that low last season. The Major League average was 68.6 percent, per STATS LLC.

So from that perspective, what we've seen in the early going -- from Brian Wilson, Jason Grilli, Jim Johnson, Joe Nathan, Jonathan Papelbon, Glen Perkins and the others -- is ugly.

But is it unusual?

As we've noted in this space before, closers face a unique transition from Spring Training to the season proper in that there is no reasonable way to simulate the environment of a save situation in exhibition play.

"You don't really use him at the end of the game," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said about Perkins. "You try to get [the closer's] work in. We've done it where a guy wants to close a game in Spring Training, but it's hard to dictate when you're going to have those chances, so waiting around is not good if you don't have a lead. You pitch them when you can, and then you hope they can turn it on when the season starts."

As much as we might like our ballplayers to be statistics-compiling machines unaffected by their surroundings, human nature dictates that the ninth inning can be a different animal than the others, and botched jobs in April are not completely uncommon.

Over the five-season span from 2009-13, the March/April save percentage was more than three points lower (65.5 percent) than the full-season save percentage (68.7). That stat is all the more interesting when you consider the difficult run-scoring environment April is already purported to be.

And consider this: over the aforementioned five-season span, the worst save percentage in the first week of the season came in 2010, when relievers converted just 58.1 percent (50 of 86) of save opportunities. Tales of gloom and doom were running rampant then, as they are now.

Despite the early struggles, though, relievers went on to post a conversion rate that season of 69.2 percent. That is actually the second-highest save rate in the Wild Card era (since 1995).

So as dark as it might appear in some corners, and as much as these closer conundrums seem to be running rampant in the present, things can evolve.

Axford would know that as well as anybody. He turned out to be one of the best closers in baseball in 2011.

"You think things aren't going to get better from there," Axford said, "but they do."

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.
Read More: John Axford, Joe Nathan, Glen Perkins, Jonathan Papelbon, Jim Johnson, Jason Grilli, Brian Wilson