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Thrown for a Loop

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First of all, congrats to the D-backs and, of course, our adopted favorite, the Rockies. I'm pretty well stunned by the sweeps, particularly the D-backs' sweep of the Cubs. I still thought the Cubs would come back even down 0-2. Did they do anything right in 3 games? Not sure.

Today the Sox and Indians go for sweeps as well. I think the Sox will get theirs (Schilling vs. Jared Weaver). It's Clemens vs. Westbrook in the late game. Visit VEB's partners to join in with the Sox, Angels, Indians or Yankees.

over the monster

halos heaven

let's go tribe

pinstripe alley

As most of you know, I've been charting and following Braden Looper's starts this past year for VEB's pitch-charting project. Looper, of course, was one of Duncan's many projects this year as it was his first as a starter. In fact, prior to this year he had exactly 12 professional starts - all with Prince William of the Carolina League back in 1997.

Looper's year was topsy-turvy, to say the least. He began the year as the Cards' best starter, with a 3-1 record and a 1.91 ERA in April. Then he seemed to hit a wall in late May. Prior to his May 29 start in Colorado, he had thrown 61 IP in about a month and a half. This doesn't even count the 20.2 IP he threw in spring training. Think those are irrelevant? In his previous 2 springs combined, he only threw 16.2 IP. So, by May 29 he had thrown more than 81 innings. He was bombed that night in Denver for 6 ER in 5.2 IP. It's happened to better pitchers in Colorado, to be sure but after being bombed by the A's on June 15 (his 3rd awful start in 4 attempts), it was pretty clear that he was worn out. At that point he had thrown 83 regular season innings, which was almost as many IP as his career high for a season. So he came back off the DL on July 2 to face the D-backs and was a roller-coaster through the rest of the season. (well, kind of)

One of the interesting facets to Looper's season was the way his pitching changed. Early in the season, he was an extreme ground ball pitcher. In April and May, his GO/AO ratio was 1.81. Later in the year, however, Looper began throwing a lot more sliders. Early on, his repertoire was basically fastball-splitter. He used the slider much more frequently later in the year and, whether intentionally or not, began giving up many more fly balls. His HR/9 went up and his GO/AO ratio went down. In August and September it was 0.88 - less than half of what it was during the first two months. Interestingly, August was his 2nd best month of the season and September was going fairly well also until his final 2 starts, where I believe he was worn out.

His season seemed to be a combination of solid starts followed by disastrous ones. In his wins, he had a 1.49 ERA in 78.2 IP. In his losses, he had a 9.79 ERA in 60.2 IP. In his no-decisions, he had a 4.29 ERA in 35.2 IP. Tony learned not to expose Looper too long during a game as he was relatively successful the first 2 times he faced a hitter, but by the 3rd time around, Looper struggled mightily. To wit:

PA H HR BB K BA OBP SLG OPS
1st PA 281 66 8 19 47 .256 .307 .411 .718
2nd PA 266 60 5 17 28 .245 .295 .343 .638
3rd PA 199 57 9 15 12 .320 .374 .584 .958

No one was really sure how Looper would handle this transition to a starter. In fact, I think most of us thought he'd be back in the `pen before season's end. This tells us pretty clearly, however, that he can be successful even when hitters see him for the 2nd time. Unfortunately, starting pitchers must be able to get at least some of the opposing hitters out the 3rd time through the order and it's there where Looper has serious problems.

Compared to other starters in the league, how good was Looper? Let's compare him to other pitchers who pitched similarly to Looper this year.

ERA BB/9 K/9 HR/9 VORP SNLVAR FIP WPA
Looper 4.94 2.62 4.47 1.13 14.8 3.8 4.82 0.06
Marquis 4.60 3.57 5.12 1.03 16.5 3.4 4.92 -0.86
Suppan 4.62 2.96 4.96 0.78 23.0 3.0 4.30 -0.90
Washburn 4.32 3.11 5.30 1.07 24.8 3.5 4.83 0.13
L. Hernandez 4.93 3.48 3.96 1.50 20.4 3.1 5.78 -0.06
Lohse 4.62 2.66 5.70 1.03 18.8 3.5 4.52 0.03

Looper's MORP this year (his estimated value) was approximately $6 million ($6,002,355) and his actual salary was $4.5 million. He has 1 year left on his contract at $5.5 million.

It's been assumed that Looper would be one of the Cards' starter in '08. Since we have only 1 starter we can definitely pencil into the rotation, aside from Looper, it stands to reason that he'll be there alongside Wainwright. But with the front office regime changing, with perhaps a greater emphasis on player development and a decreasing emphasis on veterans, maybe this is the time to sell high on Looper and trade him while he has some value. He is, basically, a league average starter in the mold of Suppan or Jarrod Washburn and will make considerably less than either of those two in '08. In fact, this season he compared favorably to everyone on that list and stands to earn less next year than any of the others. As you can see, he's clearly better than Livan Hernandez - a free agent at the end of the D-backs playoff run this year who stands to cash a pretty paycheck once he arrives for spring training next February. Lohse, also, is a free agent who should garner something in the area of 3 years and $24 million.

We will, of course, need starters and we're hardly deep in the rotation but that doesn't mean that Looper, necessarily, needs to be one of them. In order to get a sense of what kind of pitcher Looper will be during the final year of his contract, I used the Lahman database to compare Looper's '07 to other pitchers who had similar seasons. I began with seasons since 1994 and I looked for pitchers who finished a year with an ERA between 4.50 and 5.00, who threw between 162 and 200 IP during the season, who struck out fewer than 5 batters per 9 IP, and who had a ground ball ratio less than 50% (Looper's was 44.4%, easily the lowest of his career).

There were only a handful of starters who met these criteria. A few of those starters (anyone remember Garrett Stephenson?) were out of baseball the next year and Cal Eldred only threw 4 starts the next year. Here are the numbers and the averages for the pitchers the season AFTER they had the seasons most similar to Looper's this year. It should give us some idea of what to expect from Looper next year.

year team ERA HR/9 BB/9 K/9 WHIP IP Age
2003 Kennedy Joe TB 6.13 1.28 3.16 5.18 1.60 133.2 24
2007 Washburn Jarrod Sea 4.32 1.07 3.11 5.30 1.38 193.2 32
2005 Redman Mark Pitt 4.90 0.91 2.83 5.10 1.37 178.1 31
2000 Byrd Paul Phi 6.51 1.84 3.80 5.75 1.49 83.0 29
2007 Byrd Paul Clev 4.59 1.26 1.31 4.12 1.39 192.1 36
1997 Reynoso Armando NYM 4.53 0.69 2.86 4.63 1.36 91.1 31
2007 Trachsel Steve Bal-ChC 4.90 1.08 4.33 3.19 1.59 158 36
2005 Hendrickson Mark TB 5.90 1.21 2.47 4.49 1.55 178.1 31
AVG 5.22 1.17 2.98 4.72 1.47 150.9

It's not altogether a terrible list. The average numbers aren't very good but they also aren't that different from Looper's season this year and they include Byrd's bad 2000, 1 year of Armando Reynoso, and the unbelievably awful Steve Trachsel. Kennedy's '03 season isn't really a good comparison to Looper's b/c he was just 24. Looper will be 33 next season. But there's Jarrod Washburn again - one of the pitchers whose year this year was most similar to Looper's. So if Looper was worth about $6 million this year it's reasonable to believe that he has a pretty good chance of being worth $6 million or so next year. It's doubtful, in my mind, that he'll become Trachsel. Trachsel's been going downhill for some time now and never was very good to begin with. To me, Byrd (07) and Washburn are particularly interesting. They're not great pitchers by any stretch but they are serviceable major league starters who are, this year, earning more than Looper will earn next year. The Indians, in fact, have an $8 million option on Paul Byrd and it's reasonable to believe that Looper will be the same pitcher for $2.5 million less.

So what do we do? I feel fairly confident in Looper's ability to be a 4th or 5th starter for the Cards next year. He also seems to be one of the few valuable trading chips we have. He'll be cheaper than most of the comparable free agents and only under contract for next year, thus avoiding the 3 and 4 year deals that Lohse, Hernandez, and Byrd (if his option isn't picked up) will receive. Could we not trade Looper for a young SS or a couple of solid prospects and sign Lohse or Byrd or Carlos Silva? Of course, that won't fill a hole in next year's rotation but it may solve some other problem(s) in the upcoming years. It also avoids the uncertainty that exists with Looper -- none of those other starters were in their 1st year starting.

Still, Looper should provide pretty good value next year and it's likely that other GMs will notice that.