Jeff Q: Do you really think Aaron Loup is that bad?
I've always struggled to understand the level of negativity that some (many?) Blue Jays fans feel for Aaron Loup. They have simply decided that he is the worst. When he succeeds, the memory is immediately deleted. When he fails, as every human does from time to time, the alarms begin to wail.
Just search his name on Twitter, particularly during or after an appearance—the results reflect every negative emotion, from fear to anger to disgust.
My best reading of the data suggests that he's a very solid reliever, on a team-friendly contract – especially when you really look at the numbers.
He has maintained a career FIP of 3.45 over a time frame (2012-2018) in which the average MLB reliever produced a 3.85 FIP. And that's kind of important since he's a lefty, he has been more effective against left-handed batters (3.07 FIP) than the average left-handed reliever (3.27 FIP). And what's crazy impressive is that he has also been effective against right-handed batters (3.72 FIP), far more so than the average left-handed reliever (4.24 FIP) and roughly as good as the average right-handed reliever (3.66 FIP).
In his career, Loup has had only one particularly bad season: 2016. And even though he was a bit painful to watch at times, he actually maintained solid strikeout (24.2%) and walk (6.5%) rates, both better than the MLB reliever average that year (22.7% and 9.0%). His issue was the batted ball, most evident in his 1.26 HR/9. That unsightly mark was not the result of bad luck. Batters were very productive against him when they put the ball in play (.432 wOBA on batted balls), getting exactly what they deserved (.433 xwOBA on batted balls).
But 2017 was a very different story for the Aaron Loup who so many Jays fans love to jeer at any opportunity. Overall, he was much better than the average reliever, producing a 3.66 FIP (against the league average of 4.16). He was great against lefties (2.82 FIP), comfortably better than the average left-handed reliever (3.64 FIP). Similarly, he was better than the average left-hander when dealing with righties, producing a 4.26 FIP—the average lefty reliever gave up a 4.55 FIP against righties, while the average right-hander produced a 3.91 mark. Are you following? Because he's really not that bad at all.
And Statcast overwhelmingly agrees, highlighting Loup's ability to generate weak contact. The average lefty reliever maintained a .289 xwOBA against left-handed batters. Loup limited those lefty batters to a .271 mark, 25th best among his left-handed peers. His effectiveness against righties is even more striking—Loup's .289 xwOBA surpasses the average mark among right-handed relievers (.305 xwOBA).
This point is interesting when held up against the previous point, that Loup's FIP against righties (4.26) is a little behind the righty on righty average (3.91). It seems to suggest that Loup surrendered a few more homers than you'd expect given the contact that he gave up, which then, of course, leads to all the 'Loup sucks' kind of stuff.
There's already been some anti-Loup vibes this season, not that I’m surprised or anything. Obviously, the usefulness of early, small-sample data is very, very limited. I won't bother suggesting that Loup's 2018 stats prove he's doing well, but they definitely don't suggest that he's doing poorly. His strikeout rate (22.2%) is just below-average for lefty relievers (24.8%), while his walk rate (5.6%) is much better-than-average (11.7%).
The combination gives Loup one of the better K/BB (3.96) in the majors, thus far—among 229 relievers who've faced 10+ batters, Loup ranks 58th. Those solid marks (and his grand total of zero homers surrendered) have helped drive him to a 1.66 FIP (42nd best in the majors).
There is no evidence in the Statcast data that he's sucked so far this season—his .318 xwOBA is slightly better than the average left-handed reliever (.322 xwOBA). Moreover, the usual markers are flashing that say he's been very unlucky in his five appearances this season. His BABIP is .538. He's left only 62.5% of his base runners on, relative to his 74.5% career average. His wOBA (.458) is lagging well behind his solid xwOBA—he owns the third most positive wOBA-xwOBA differential among major-league relievers.
Just go back to his appearance versus the Rangers on Sunday. He gave up two weak grounders and a liner to centre, for a solid xwOBA of .289. But dumb Odor managed to get a double from his super-weak grounder because the infield was shifted and he was so early with his swing that he pool cued the ball into left field. Loup's wOBA on the day was .703.
But again, all of these 2018 stats should be taken with a grain of salt and a tiny pinch of pepper. I mention them only to underline the lack of useful evidence that shows he's pitched poorly so far.
Some fans think that he's not good, while the most useful and predictive stats resoundingly disagree. I'm not trying to gaslight people, but any issues one might have with him have to be put into perspective.
Sure, he hit an oddly high number of batters last year, accumulating six HBP (2.3% of all the batters he faced). Andrew Miller hit five batters last season (2.0%). Pitchers who put significant movement on their pitches tend to be both effective and prone to hitting batters. Screwing up is a fundamental part of baseball and those moments have to be put into the proper context. Loup isn't Miller (few pitchers are), but his body of work is deserving of far more support from his own team's fans than he generally gets, hit-batsmen or not.
Maybe I'm wasting my time trying to convince people that their eyes lie to them sometimes. But my experience tells me that plenty of us are willing to change our beliefs based on evidence. Back in the summer of 2016, my understanding of analytics was much weaker than it is today. I shuddered every time Loup entered a game, with his struggles that season being particularly problematic given the tight playoff race. But the more I understood what the various stats tell us, the more I appreciated the fact that Aaron Loup is better than most major league relievers.
All I ask is for Jays fans to keep an open mind about the longest-tenured Blue Jay. He's honestly pretty good. And he’s honestly not that bad at all.
(Ed. You can find more of Jeff's great stuff over at Jays From The Couch, so go check it out.)