Aaron Loup pitched 14.1 MLB innings in 2016; they were not any good. In fact, they were astoundingly not good. Yes, there was an elbow injury. Yes, there were 20 pretty fantastic AAA innings. But 2016 was a wash.

You’re sitting here, reading this, thinking about how unjustifiable Aaron Loup is at this point. I’m here to tell you that you maybe might just be a tiny bit wrong. Maybe.

Today, I want to talk about Aaron Loup’s career, and the fact that the good completely outweighs the bad so far. Sure, relievers are volatile; their careers stop on dimes. But, we cannot operate under the assumption that one day, every reliever suddenly stops getting outs. Instead, let’s take a look at what Aaron Loup does well, what he doesn’t do well, and where he fits into the 2017 Toronto Blue Jays bullpen.

In 2015, I wrote a primer about the Blue Jays’ internal closer options after the departure of long-time Blue Jay Casey Janssen. Back then, I pegged Loup as a solid reliever with some small upside who could anchor the middle or back end of a pen. This hasn’t changed. Back then, I figured his difficult delivery and issues with managing release points would prevent him reaching an elite level in the pen. This hasn’t changed.

When writing that article, I was reviewing the first 2.5 MLB years of Loup’s career. Here, now, I want to go in depth on Loup’s 2012-2014.

I like to pair 2012 and 2013 together for Loup, because getting as many innings as you can into a sample is always for the best. Further, it adds up to precisely 100 innings (300 outs generated), which is neat.

First, the counting stats we’re familiar with. Loup sported a 2.52 ERA over his first 100 innings. Through 399 batters faced, he surrendered 92 hits, of which 22 went for extra bases. He walked 19, and struck out 74. He held opponents to a remarkable .289 on-base percentage and only a .345 slugging percentage. In total, he only gave up five round-trippers. (On a fun note, these five homers were surrendered to Johnny Gomes, Jason Bay, Omar Infante, Adam Jones and Humberto Quintero. See? Fun! You totally forgot Humberto Quintero is a thing.)

Things look pretty sparkly from a sabermetric perspective as well. If you are familiar with xFIP, you understand that it is, in essence, a stat that attempts to give you an estimation of a pitcher’s earned run expectancy with defense isolated out of the equation to leave what can be considered “pitcher controlled” outcomes to stand on their own. FanGraphs provides a handy table to quantify what xFIP means in relation to performance we are used to. It reads as follows:

Excellent = 2.90
Great = 3.20
Above Average = 3.50
Average = 3.80
Below Average = 4.10
Poor = 4.40
Awful = 4.70

Anything 2.90 and lower is considered best-of-the-best. Anything 4.70 or higher is completely dreadful and essentially not rosterable on any ballclub. To add a bit of context to this chart in regard to 2012/13, here’s the top five relievers in xFIP, minimum 100 innings (99 relievers total), through those two years:

Craig Kimbrel = 1.43
Aroldis Chapman = 1.99
Koji Uehara = 2.27
Kenley Jansen = 2.31
Greg Holland = 2.42

And the worst:

Josh Roenicke = 4.93
Kevin Gregg = 4.55
James Russell = 4.53
Carlos Marmol = 4.46
Logan Ondrusek = 4.41

You notice some pretty cool things here, really. Firstly, Craig Kimbrel used to be gosh-darn incredible. That there’s this significant a gap between he and Chapman is so neat. Secondly, you see that the worst reliever in the league to throw 100 innings through those two years had a 4.93, and the second was a 4.55. What does this suggest? Perhaps it suggests teams aren’t letting crappy relievers throw many innings anymore. But, I digress, we’re here to speak of someone in particular.

Aaron Loup’s 2012/13 xFIP was 3.25, meaning he was essentially another strikeout or so away from being considered “Great!” by the metric. Isn’t that something? The guy you now know as kinda bad was once incredibly good! Believe it or not, things hold up! The league average xFIP in 2012 was 3.92. In 2013, it was 3.79. Over that stretch, Loup was considerably better than league average. Out of those 99 qualified relievers mentioned above, Loup’s xFIP ranks 23rd. That’s surprisingly good for a low-strikeout, high-contact guy. Relievers like Loup rely on solid defence to keep their ERA low, for the most part. He was a guy hucking a 6.7 (The actual, non-rounded number is 6.66, which is great) strikeouts per 9 (18.6 K%).

Things just get so much more fun with Loup as you dig. He was 10th best in baseball out of those 99 at suppressing hard contact. He was getting 2.5 ground balls for every 1 fly. He had a (mostly luck-driven) homer percentage at 6.9% of fly balls, but a capital P phenomenal 3.4 walk percentage (BB%).

For our second dive, we’re going to look at 2014/2015 as a pair, because it adds to 111 innings, which is close enough to the first sample that I’ll allow it. There’s more bleakness here, so get ready.

2014/15 was a lesson in trending downwards. Loup regressed in almost every category except for K% and a few others. I’m going to lay these out a little quicker than I did before. 3.65 ERA, .315 OBP, .386 SLG. xFIP? That’s a better-than-average 3.53. His BB% jumped to 8%. His HR/FB doubled.

Don’t get me wrong. Like I mentioned off the hop, I’m here to get you excited about Aaron Loup. I really am. See how 2014/15 still looks pretty respectable? Well, it was very nearly much better. In 2015, Loup regressed all at once in the homer department and limped to a HR/FB% of over 20%. That makes this period look a lot worse than it was. An xFIP of 2.89 was still achieved despite his homer issues over his 42.1 innings in 2015. That 2.89 mark left Loup the 22nd best reliever by that metric out of 161 relievers who threw as many innings as he did.

I need to break away from the pattern here as we move towards the summation of my efforts. Until this point, we’ve been breaking up Loup’s career into 100-inning chunks. Right now, we need to zone in on a 56.2 inning sample from April 2015 to October 2016. We need to zone in even further on just one particular stat that really blows the doors off the barn. Remember earlier, how we briefly discussed how Loup was a low-K% kind of guy, struggling to even come close to 20%? Yeah, over his last 56.2 innings, he’s been anything but. Take a look.

24.6 K%.

That’s right! **24.6 K%**

Sure, the sample is small. Sure, that ranks him 24th out of lefty relievers who threw at least 50 innings in that period. But, picture it this way. 65 relievers match the criteria, and Loup was only a few strikeouts shy of being in the top third of them. This means something, and it means more than you are initially thinking. Why? Because Loup didn’t sacrifice his absolutely best-of-the-best walk rate for strikeouts. He was still 2nd in the league by the same criteria as above. Add in righties, and Loup is then 11th out of 256 relievers.

So, is the problem really just in the homer rate? No. There are a few other tidbit things that culminated in his lack of optical success. Namely, his moderately-low strand rate and a weird new penchant for hitting batters. Are hitters leaning in on that funky sidewinder delivery Loup sports? Maybe, yeah.

Owen Watson of FanGraphs may have found some of the reason why his K% skyrocketed of late. In 2015, Aaron Loup averaged about 4 extra inches of lateral movement (ie: towards RHH) on his slider, and a few extra MPH too. He found this led to more swings, but fewer swinging strikes. While this doesn’t seem like a recipe for jacking up strikeout rates, what it does suggest is a higher quality secondary pitch that hitters then had to look for.

So, what happens if Aaron Loup keeps the high K%, keeps the amazingly low BB%, and just brings that homer rate down a little? Well, heck, Aaron Loup starts to look like a pretty palatable reliever, right? Loup wouldn’t even need to be close to the star of a bullpen that now actually has some support behind closer Roberto Osuna. With JP Howell and Joe Smith added, and Grilli and minor-league types like Ryan Tepera or Matt Dermody or, heck, Tim Mayza to fill in the slush, Loup can rest comfortable in low-mid leverage innings and likely do really well at it.

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