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Lookin' at Looper

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Dave Duncan apparently sees something in Braden Looper that causes him to think he can be a successful big league starter despite him never making a start above the A ball level. I'm still not sure what exactly, but I thought it would be interesting to take a look at Looper past, present and future.

Looper was a star athlete out of Oklahoma's Mangum High School, lettering in baseball, basketball and football. He graduated in '93 and accepted a baseball scholarship to Wichita State, a school with a great reputation for producing pitchers. In 1995 as Looper was a first team all star relief pitcher for the Missouri Valley Conference. The following year he was a first team All American pitcher was selected to pitch for Team USA in the Olympics, where he took home a bronze medal. (Baseball still belongs in the Olympics!) Looper was the third overall pick of the 1996 draft by the Cardinals, receiving a hefty signing bonus of $1,675,000. The pick was made with the near future in mind, Dennis Eckersley was at that time the closer and his career was rapidly nearing it's end.

Looper made his debut age 22 the following year, and started 12 games for the High A Prince William Cannons of the Carolina League. He was a college closer, his 12 starts were to allow him to log more innings. He moved up to AA Arkansas and settled back into his familiar role.

Overall Looper had a nice debut. He struck out nearly a batter per inning and had an average walk rate. He did allow 95 hits in 85 innings, and you can see the disconnect between his DIPS and ERA. Typically you can blame that on inexperienced defenders.

Going into the '97 season Looper was ranked the #3 Cardinal prospect by Baseball America, behind Matt Morris and Dmitri Young and followed by Eli Marrero. He ranked as the #32 prospect out of all minor leaguers. At 23, he started the season with the big club. On March 31st against the Dodgers he struck out the side in the 9th, preserving the 6-0 shut out. I'm having trouble filling in the blanks here, I don't if he was sent down after only 4 games or was injured, but Looper finished the season in AAA Memphis. I would assume he was injured sometime that season, 40 innings is not a full season for a highly regarded prospect. Going into '98, Looper was again named the #3 Cardinal prospect by BA, this time surpassed by Rick Ankiel and Eli Marrero. Around that time, Baseball Prospectus had this to say regarding Looper:

Another great-looking pitcher out of Wichita State's factory, Looper was the Cardinals' 1996 first-rounder. Armed with a 95-plus fastball, a good slider and a change up, he's on the fast track.

Braden was on the fast track, but not for the Birds. The Marlins had a very good young player in Edgar Renteria, but were in full scale fire sale mode after Edgar hit the game winning RBI single that won them their first World Series. The Cardinals swapped for the young Columbian, giving up Looper and Armando Almanza in December of '98. It was an interesting move for the Cardinals, who where in need of a closer going into the season, but the young and athletic Renteria was too good of a player to pass up. It was yet another savvy trade by Jocketty, Almanza and Looper had a combined WARP (wins above replacement) of 18.3 for the Fish over 5 seasons, El Capitan's total WARP over 6 seasons was 26.4.

Looper didn't take over the closer's role for Florida until mid 2002 and it was later wrested from him in late in the season of '03 by Uggie Urbina. Until that time he was a set up man, mostly due to the same reasons we've come to know, his mediocre K rates due and his troubles with lefties. Here's his numbers as a Marlin:

Despite losing his job at the end of the season, Looper signed a $2.8 million dollar deal with the Mets and became their closer in '04. They saw in those numbers a pitcher who, after struggling early in his career, was seemingly turning the corner. He rewarded them with his best season ever in '04. After taking a step forward, he took a big step back by blowing 8 saves the next season. His HR rate was uncharacteristically high and his K/9 rate sank due to a blown AC joint in his shoulder that he later had surgery performed on that winter. Signed to a ridiculous 3 year contact last winter, he rebounded somewhat but continued to struggle against lefties, and was unable to claim the closers job after Izzy went down despite his experience.

Looper is somewhat of an oddity, he throws 94-95 with good sink to his fastball, but has been unable to recapture his decent K rates he had in the minors due to a lack of complimentary pitches. While he's posted some nice ERAs, he's not been able to hold down a closer's job for over a season, yet somehow Dave Duncan has the idea he can be a valuable starter. Duncan knows his stuff more often than not, so I trust he knows something we don't. PECOTA isn't terribly optimistic.

We'll see where this experiment takes us within a short time should he win the job. I think one year after surgery Looper's K rates won't be as bad as projected, though still low.