Saturday, May 07, 2005

Looper's Litmus

We heard the whispers when he was signed by the Mets in the winter of 2003: "Fragile...can't handle the big what happens after that first blown save." And this criticism came after he struck out ALCS hero Aaron Boone during extra innings of a 2003 World Series game.

Braden Looper is proof that closing ball games is a "what have you done for me lately" profession. Looper had a 2004 that exceeded all expectations...a 2.70 ERA, 29 out of 34 save chances, 60 K's and 16 walks in 83 and 1/3 innings. Looper was one of the bright spots of a dismal 2004 squad. But after opening day 2005, where Looper had what seemingly became "the blown save heard 'round the world" against Cincinnati on opening day, the calls for his head started all over again. And after a rough start Looper has been racking up saves, including two saves in less than favorable conditions (striking out tying run and Met killer Pat Burrell on Thursday, and getting Carlos Lee with the bases juiced on Friday).

As for the stats, when painted on a backdrop of other major league closers, you see that there are problems everywhere. Looper currently has an ERA of 4.97 with 7 saves. Keith Foulke of the Red Sox, Shingo Takatsu of the White Sox, and Dan Kolb of the Braves all have more saves than Looper, yet have ERA's over 6.00 as of Friday morning. And all three closers play for first or second place teams. Danny Graves has 8 saves and a WHIP over 2.00. Even Mariano Rivera has had a rough go this season when you include last night's loss to Oakland. So Looper's issues are common throughout the league.

To Looper's credit, he's handled this first real wave of criticism well. When the closer was booed during the home opener, he joked that the chant was "Loooooooooooooo-per"...not exactly the meltdown predicted by the pundits. Would you have gotten a light-hearted response like that from say, Armando Benitez, who not only came up small when it counted the most (despite all his physical tools and his great fantasy stats) but who famously stopped talking to the media because they only stopped by his locker after a blown save.

Now who knows what will happen after the next bad stretch, or if there is a trade for a closer type such as Tigers' Ugueth Urbina or Danys Baez of Tampa Bay. But for now, Looper isn't folding up his tent because not everything is going his way. It's a good sign.

The Prophecy: The Mets will get some form of bullpen help, but nobody that will remotely be a threat to Looper. I can't see the Mets overpaying in players or prospects to get a closer from another team to set up in Flushing. And I can't see Willie Randolph playing the type of games with Looper that Art Howe did with Mike Piazza's move to first base. Oh boy, if Howe were still running the ship, he would have gone out and told every newspaper, radio and TV outlet that Braden Looper would possibly move to a set-up role, and not tell Looper himself. What kind of fiasco would that have been? Luckily in Randolph, the Mets have a manager who understands the New York press, and would never put Looper in a bad position by putting his job on the auction block publicly. Randolph will give Looper every opportunity to fail, and he'll have to fail mightily for the Mets to pull the trigger and hand his job to someone else. And let's face it, the options that would be available aren't significantly better than Looper. So his job will be safe through the end of the season.

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