The U Files # 54: Getting In The Loop

The Mets have had two names entrenched at the high profile but in a way overrated spot of closer over the years since 1990. John Franco had become an institution at closer, but lost his role upon injury and is now too old to close. Armando Benitez had the pedigree of a Rolaids Relief award winner, but was so notorious for his big game collapses that the Mets cut him loose. The spot, which was a hole for the last half of 2003, is now filled.

The closer role, especially as it is currently used, is more glamorous than important. Sabermetrics has held for years that the "closer", the best pitcher out of the bullpen, should be the first-choice pitcher brought in at critical game moments – that shelving him at these times in favor of starting the ninth inning with no runners on and a lead does not optimize the use of your bullpen. The closer is used in a less than optimal role, and the pitchers that are brought in to face the fires are inferior pitchers. However, the role of closer is in the spotlight much moreso than a middle reliever.

This stated, there are reasons to want an established closer. Losses by way of blown save are as noteworthy as losses generally get. Such losses generate more bad press than a loss by other means generally do.

The Mets have generated a lot of buzz around a number of heralded "closers of the future." This signing would take the job out of these arm's reach for the immediate future, defensibly so. Teams in general are loath to give the job of closer to pitchers with no ML pedigree at all. Rookie pitchers often go through struggles in MLB before they perform to the fullest of their capacity, and it is possible that a role as high profile as the closers would place additional stress on a young pitcher. The Mets have chosen to bring Royce Ring and the rest of the small cadre in gently, in less glamorous ML roles once deemed ready, there to be seasoned until seen as fit to become closer, if ever.

The Mets have reportedly signed RHP Braden Looper to a two year contract worth approximately $6.5 million. The deal will not be announced by the Mets until after Looper has passed a medical examination, as is standard procedure. Looper, formerly of the Florida Marlins, was a first time free agent with six years of Major League baseball in his resume. He lost his role in Florida once the Marlins signed former Met Armando Benitez to close, and was not offered arbitration. The Mets will not pick up any draft picks at the Marlins expense.

Looper has a career ERA of 3.70 that is thirteen percent lower than the league average ERA adjusted to Looper's home park. In 2003 his ERA was 3.68, but only nine percent lower than the league average. Looper saved 28 games in 34 chances for the Marlins in 2003 before the team acquired veteran closer Ugueth Urbina to close games.

ERA is generally not as useful for evaluating relief pitchers as it is for starting pitchers, due to the added complication of runners left on base and runners inherited from the previous pitcher. Baseball Prospectus has a statistic tailored specifically to evaluate relief pitchers that accounts for these factors. Adjusted Runs Prevented (ARP) is generated by considering the run value of the base/out situation a pitcher enters the game with (the number of runs that typically score in such a situation), the run value of the situation the pitcher leaves the game with, and any runs that scored. The statistic is given in runs above or below average.

Looper has generally been above average by this measure, though not spectacular by the standards of a closer. Looper had –13.4 ARP runs in 2000, but positive 2.5 runs in 2001, 15.4 runs in 2002, and 3.2 runs in 2003. His 2002-year would have ranked better than any Mets reliever in 2003 except Benitez, edging out a typical solid performance from David Weathers and what could be expected from a healthy Scott Strickland. His 2001 and 2003 years are uninspiring from a closer, and his 2000 is very poor. If Looper can come closer to his 2002 under the tutelage of heralded coach Rick Peterson, he would make a solid closer. His last three years indicate he will be an improvement for a bullpen that was overall below average and had lost Benitez, though he will not replicate the typical regular season dominance of Benitez.

The overall effect on the team as compared to the 2003 state is small, though the signing does fill a hole that the Mets would be interested in filling. Depending on Looper's performance, the team may lose up to a win relative to the Benitez Mets but regain an additional win that had been lost in the absence of a closer.

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