The beauty of sports is it's unpredictability. Some analysts like to think they are soothsayers. Mel Kiper Jr., for example will project next year's first round draft picks no more than 48 hours after this year's Mr. Irrelevant has been selected. I would like to think that average sports fan is smarter enough to realize that this is all hullabaloo, but then again there a ghastly number of people out there who think David Eckstein and Darin Erstad are a good baseball players. Anyway, no where is the unpredictable nature of sports more apparent than in Braden Looper's inexplicable success thus as a starting pitcher.
Looper was the one player I was sure would be an absolute bust this season. He had been a second or third tier closer for most of his career. He was replaced by our favorite felon Uggie Urbina for Marlins World Series run in 2003 and followed that embarrassment with two rough seasons with the New York Mets. Looper's 2005 was particularly atrocious as he blew 8 saves for a team that was in serious contention for a wild card spot. He actually made me yearn for John Franco and his Staten Island garbageball. In 2006 he signed with the Cardinals and was a serviceable middle reliever. Yet when Cardinal closer Jason Isringhausen went out with an arm injury, it was rookie Adam Wainwright who replaced Izzy, not Looper, who had amassed 103 career saves. That is not exactly a vote of confidence in your ability.
One of Looper's most glaring problems was his inability to get lefties out. As a closer Looper only really featured two pitches, a fastball/cutter and a slider. None of these pitches proved effective against lefties. From 2004 - 2006, lefties OPS'd .835 off of him. During his horrendous 2005, lefty hitters OPS'd an almost Bondsian .979.
In order to be effective, starting pitchers need to get batters from both sides of the plate out. One major reason pitchers go to the bullpen is that they lack a third pitch to get a lefty/righty out consistently. This certainly seemed to be the case with Looper over the past few years. Yet somehow some way, Looper, with the help of Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan, has turned himself into one of the best starters in Major League Baseball. He is currently 3-1 with a 1.91 ERA and a 1.00 WHIP. Lefties are only OPS'ing .595 against him.
How can this success be explained? I don't know. I guess every once in a while the sun shines on a dog's ass. I was originally going to go with the theory that he is throwing his change up effectively to lefties. Stats refute that hypothesis however, as lefties are hitting .352 against his change up. Perhaps he is mixing his pitches better. That is inherently difficult to quantify. His K/BB (18/10) and K/9 ratios are not impressive either. Thus there is only one good faith conclusion I can reach...Looper has been extremely lucky. His balls batted in play average is pretty low and one would expect that as well as his ops against to revert back to his career mean. He has only made four starts, which is an extremely small sample size. If he gives up 8 runs in 2 innings during his next start, his ERA is going to skyrocket. Based on the evidence, Looper will be extremely hard pressed to keep up a level of production anywhere near where he is now. In conclusion (if you're still around to read this conclusion) is that Looper's performance is probably fool's gold, but you never know since sports is unpredictable.
(On a side note: As I write this, there is an European soccer game on ESPN. Obviously I can't find my remote. Anyway there is a player named Kaka (sp?) on one of these teams. Everytime the announcer, in his proper British accent, says, "it was Kaka who made the foul" or "Kaka is extremely accurate", I can't help but giggling just a little bit.)