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Braden Looper: Right Handed Specialist?

After coming off what can only be described as a terrible year with the Milwaukee Brewers, the team declined to pick up Braden Looper‘s $6 million option. Now, as the date for pitchers and catchers to report inches closer and closer, Looper is still without a job. He is resistant to taking a minor league or non-guaranteed deal, and is likely looking for a multi-million dollar contract.

It is unlikely that his HR/FB remains at the crazy 15.8% mark that it was last year, but Looper has struggled with home runs since becoming a starter, and for that reason his effectiveness will be limited. Looper was converted to a starter after struggling as a closer, but in reality, his issues as both a closer and a starter stem from the same issue – a very high platoon split.

In both roles, it is impossible to avoid seeing opposite handed batter. Closers will see opposite-handed players come off the bench to maximize platoon leverage, and starters have to face the opposite-handed side of platoons.

Last year, Looper struggled in every controllable facet of pitching against lefties. He gave up significantly more HR and BB despite facing 46 fewer left handed batters, and after accounting for this difference, he still struck out fewer. His 6.82 FIP against lefties was well below replacement level, and even his 5.22 xFIP is dangerously near it. If Looper had ran something similar to his 4.83 FIP against righties, he could have provided at least a minimal value to the Brewers. Instead, he was nearly a win below replacement level.

This is essentially right in line with career norms for Looper, whose FIP against same-handed batters is over a run better than that against lefties, almost completely due to his penchant for allowing home runs to these batters. Over 1800 TBF vs. LHB and 2200 TBF vs. RHB, this suggests that there is a platoon split at work here, even if his true split likely isn’t quite a whole run per 9 innings.

That means that Looper would likely thrive in a role where he could be pulled against a run of left handed batters (or even just one), such as a middle relief role. With a 4.03 FIP in 2257 TBF vs. RHB, and over half of that accrued as a starter, we could reasonably expect a sub 3.50 FIP out of Looper in a role with limited exposure to LHBs, due to the bonus we typically see with the move from starter to reliever. That type of production, even in middle-relief type innings, may actually be more valuable than the near 5.00 FIP Looper would be projected to run as a starter.

It may not be the most attractive idea to Looper or his agent, but his best bet to be a productive major league player again may be in a role of this type.