How Canadian pitcher John Axford makes his famously-accurate Oscar picks

John Axford (left) works on a Soduku puzzle with teammates in the Oakland Athletics locker room. (Getty Images)
John Axford (left) works on a Soduku puzzle with teammates in the Oakland Athletics locker room. (Getty Images)

Oakland Athletics reliever John Axford is primarily known for throwing baseballs with extraordinary velocity and deceptive movement. It’s a talent that has granted him eight years and counting in the major leagues and approximately $17.9 million in career earnings.

But propelling spherical leather objects is not Axford’s only talent. The pride of Simcoe, Ont. has also honed another skill arguably even more rare than his ability to pitch at the highest level. There are hundreds of guys who can throw a few relief innings in the majors, but almost no one can predict the Academy Award winners as accurately as the 33-year-old.

Axford has always been a film buff, but he started making Oscar picks fairly recently and the whole thing has rolled downhill from there.

“Maybe just by fluke I realized I was good at it, I don’t know,” he told Yahoo Canada Sports at a Baseball Canada fundraiser earlier this month. “I started doing it in maybe 2010 or 2011 just making my guesses and putting them out on social media. I was just doing a few of them, 12 or 13 and only over the last couple years have I been doing the full 24.”

The Athletics right-hander really put himself on the map in 2014, when he went 18-for-18 with his picks. Since then he’s gone 17-for-24 in the each of the last two years to give him an 81.5 percent hit rate since 2013.

As a pitcher, Axford is no stranger to film study, and that’s where his process begins.

“I watch as many of the films as I can, if not all of them,” he says. “I do my due diligence and homework and see how the award season is going, see who wins and just go from there. But sometimes I just have to go with my gut as opposed to the probabilities.”

The difficult part comes in balancing his strategy with the voting results of previous awards shows and Hollywood’s established patterns.

“You have to realize where they vote and how they vote, particularly toward best picture, and where the best actor and actresses awards have gone recently,” Axford says. “Sometimes it just goes back to the Screen Actors Guild Awards and what people have done there.”

An important factor he keeps in mind is how often certain actors have won in the past since the Academy doesn’t like to double down.

“Generally with the Academy if you win, you don’t win again right after for the next couple of years,” Axford says. “They usually take a little break, you can certainly look at the history of Tom Hanks for some of that.”

Even so, there aren’t hard and fast rules. In 2012, Axford was enthralled by Christoph Waltz’s performance in Django Unchained, but worried that he wouldn’t have a good Oscar chance because of his 2009 Best Supporting Actor win for Inglourious Basterds. Ultimately, he decided to go with Waltz, even if it wasn’t the best strategic play on paper.

“Someone else was favoured to win, but I really loved Christoph Waltz in Django Unchained,” he recalls. “I thought he was going to win, and I wanted him to, so I chose him and he ended up winning.”

This year presents a difficult challenge for Axford as he sees Moonlight as the year’s best film, but La La Land cleaned up at the Golden Globes with seven awards.

“The Academy and Hollywood love things about themselves,” he says dryly. “So it could definitely go that way.”

Axford also sees a dogfight among the Best Supporting Actor nominees and will be in tough to correctly tab some of the lesser-known awards that he’s been wrestling with since he decided to take on the whole docket back in 2015.

“I think the actors on the supporting side could have some tough decisions there and some upsets,” he says. “Some of the categories lower down, the technical categories, the short films, the docs – those ones are really tough for me as well.”

Axford will go to work looking to recapture the magic of his perfect 2014 run on Tuesday when the nominees for the 89th Oscars are announced.