Aaron Loup is Having a Career Year (In Terms of Things He Can Control)
(Title photo courtesy of Keith Allison, https://www.flickr.com/photos/keithallison/)
The Toronto Blue Jays have suffered a maddening number of close losses this season — they are 10-20 in one-run games and have piled up 15 blown saves (note that blown saves can include the loss of a lead in innings before the ninth). There are countless ways to express these late-game struggles; essentially, the Blue Jays wins have come as blowouts while their losses have been decided by razor-thin margins. Very rarely have the Blue Jays been blown out themselves. This is extremely frustrating since evidence suggests that close-game record is generally out of a team’s control. The Blue Jays are the victims of bad luck and these one-run losses should not be expected to continue.
With the trade deadline fast approaching and attention being placed on the starting rotation and bullpen, I decided to write about one existing member of the bullpen (of many; this article could be about Liam Hendriks or Brett Cecil too), Aaron Loup, who looks like he’ll be a productive reliever down the stretch, but isn’t being seen that way.
Aaron Loup is frequently in the middle of these close losses. The misfortune that the Blue Jays as a team continue to encounter often channels through him. Indeed he accounts for four of the blown saves has piled up 19 earned runs in 34.1 innings (for an ugly 4.98 ERA) and has melted down 10 times. Those numbers tell the story of what has happened to the Blue Jays while Aaron Loup has been on the mound this season, but they don’t paint much of a picture of how Aaron Loup’s skill has expressed itself this season.
Earned run average is a very noisy stat that in small samples (for relievers this can mean several seasons) is heavily influenced by luck, fielders, ballparks, umpires, catchers, and other factors. It takes a long time to stabilize to the point where the pitcher’s skills are being properly evaluated. It is flawed too — the “earned” distinction is fairly arbitrary and leads to bias: fly balls go for errors less often than ground balls so ERA undervalues fly ball pitchers. In the 1880s, this distinction really didn’t matter, but today, society demands more precision. Leading baseball analysts such as Tom Tango believe that baseball would be better off using runs allowed as the base run prevention unit.
This assault on ERA doesn’t necessarily mean anything for Loup, however. The main point here is that his runs allowance has been inflated due to two things that pitchers do not really control: the rate at which balls fall in for hits after being put in play (BABIP), and the rate at which fly balls go over the fence for home runs (HR/FB).
In large samples, it becomes clear that some pitchers have skill levels for BABIP and HR/FB that deviate slightly from league average, which generally hovers around .300 and 10%, respectively. Many of the irregular pitchers are extreme fly ball pitchers who are able to induce infield flies at a rate consistently above average. Aaron Loup does not have an especially notable profile. He’s a ground ball pitcher with a very neutral career BABIP and HR/FB. It would not be correct to assume that his true-talent BABIP and HR/FB rates differ from average by a tangible amount.
Aaron Loup in 2015 has performed excellently in areas that he has control over. This principally includes getting strikeouts, limiting walks and inducing ground balls. It does not take long for these three traits to become reliable — Russell Carleton has found that strikeout rate reaches a reliability of 0.70 after just 70 batters faced, walks after 170 batters faced, and ground ball rate after 70 balls in play. Loup has surpassed those thresholds this season. His 25.9% K%, 4.1% BB% and 54.1 GB% are all fantastic, even among relievers, and are summed up by a 69 xFIP-. Stats phrased with minuses (and pluses for hitters) indicate how a pitcher has performed compared to average, on a percentage scale. xFIP- specifically assigns a neutral HR/FB rate to pitchers and uses only strikeouts, walks and fly balls as inputs.
A pitcher with Aaron Loup’s defense-independent numbers would be expected to prevent runs at a rate of 31 percentage points below average. That’s very good and places him 13th among major league relievers with 30 innings pitched.
It’s easy to see why Loup is succeeding. He is throwing his fastball harder than ever, averaging 93.4 mph (career average is 92.2) and getting first-pitch strikes, swinging strikes and chases at career-high rates. His stuff seems to have extra bite this year and the peripherals are backing that up.
Loup’s career xFIP- is 87 while his previous career high was his 75 mark from 2012. 2015 has clearly been a career year for him in terms of things succeeding at things he can control. Which is the only fair way to evaluate players, really. The pen’s other prominent lefty, Brett Cecil, is having a productive season too in this regard. The Blue Jays bullpen does not need reinforcements; if they let the same pitchers continue to pitch late in games, they should be all right.