One of the most appalling things about the Jeffrey Hammonds signing – apart from the direct, catastrophic consequences of misjudging his talent – was the revelation that the front office at the time had no idea that elevation affected the flight of a baseball, or how to adjust for it, or were aware of the existence of home/road splits. More troubling still was the existence of the Brewers High-A affiliate, the High Desert Mavericks who played in Adelanto California at an elevation of 2,871 ft.
I mean, “High Desert” is right there in the name.
Anyway, in 2009 Doug Melvin and the Brewers saw fit to sign Braden Looper to fill a spot in a rotation. Looper was converted into a starter by Dave Duncan’s wizardry in 2007 at the age of 31. He’d spent the previous 8 years as a pretty effective relief pitcher. He was OK for the Cardinals, but just OK (at best). In 2007 he had a 4.94 ERA (4.74 xFIP, so actually pretty horrible) and a 4.16 ERA/4.31 xFIP the following year. The best thing you can say about him is that he ate a ton of innings, approaching 200 each of his last 2 years as a Cardinal.
There’s something else interesting about Looper. He’s mentioned in Tango/Lichtman/Dolphin’s The Book, as follows:
“Teams tend to spend a good deal of time worrying about the need for left-handed relief specialists (indeed, we have devoted an entire section discussing this topic), but one should also be aware of the usefulness of right-handed relief specialists – Pitchers who are above average (or even quite good) against right-handed hitters, but well below average against lefties. A good example would be Braden Looper, whose wOBA skill against right-handed hitters has been a solid .302 but who gets shelled to the tune of .360 when facing lefties. Pitchers like Looper can be even more useful than their left-handed counterparts, due to the greater likelihood of finding consecutive right-handed hitters in the lineup. As as many Mets fans are aware, Looper should probably not be used as an exclusive closer (i.e., used regardless of the handedness of the batters coming to the plate). Even a poor overall lefty would be more effective than Looper versus a LHB.” (Page 178, if you haven’t read The Book you really should.)
The Brewers put a good offense on the field in 2009 as they scored the 3rd most runs in the NL behind the Phils and Rockies, and let’s face it, the Rockies don’t count. They also allowed more runs than anyone but the Nationals. This should all be sounding a bit familiar. In 2009 only one Brewer starter (Yovani Galardo) had an ERA under 5.00. Two Brewer starters had ERAs over 6.00.* Braden Looper led the staff with 194.2 IP, and there are probably a few morons out there who think he wasn’t that bad on account of his 14-7 W-L record. He was terrible, and part of the reason he was terrible was simply the fact that no one realized his strengths and weaknesses. Looper was ROOGY. Everyone knew this (or should have known this) and there’s some pretty good evidence that the Cardinals at least suspected this as in Looper’s last 2 years as a Cardinal he faced lefties in only 43% of PAs. In 2009 as a Brewer he faced lefties in 47% of plate appearances.
For his career righties hit .253/.307/.368 off of Looper. He was quite effective. Over a sample of 2204 Pas, lefties hit .297/.359/.477. For reference, Don Mattingly’s career slash line is .307/.358/.471. Basically every lefty was Don Mattingly against Looper for his entire career.
For the Brewers in 2009 righties hit .278/.325/.468 against him, which isn’t great to begin with, but lefties just destroyed the guy to the tune of .302/.365/.544. Ryan Braun’s career slash line is .314/.376/.569. He allowed 39 HRs, which is amazing.
The Brewers ponied up 5.5 million for him and an additional 6 mill for Trevor Hoffman**. Together they made up 14% of the Brewers’ payroll that year. Add in Jeff Suppan’s 12.75 mill and the three of them made up 30% of the team’s total salaries.
It’s not a lot of money in a vacuum, but it was such a flawed decision from the start. Signings like that are the kind of things that bug me. The Suppan signing was a disaster. The Wolf signing was less so, but it’s worth mentioning that Wolf was a free agent the same year as Looper, and was a better pitcher, and was paid just 5 mill by the Dodgers (and gave them 214 IP with a 3.23 ERA). That 2009 pitching staff was a train wreck, and one of the primary reasons it was a train wreck is because Doug Melvin expected to get 200 innings out of a guy who turns every left-handed batter into Don Mattingly.
If there’s one area where the Melvin administration has failed miserably it’s in getting starting pitching. They’ve failed to draft high-ceiling prospects, they’ve failed to develop anyone worth a damn outside of Gallardo, and outside of the “duh” category (Sabathia, Greinke), they are seemingly incapable of finding useful pitchers on the open market, though I suppose Lohse has been OK to this point.
I don’t like it when I outguess the front office. They’re supposed to be smarter than I am. We all knew that Suppan would be terrible. Same deal with Looper. When the fans are better at picking personnel than the GM, that is the single biggest indictment of the GM.
*2013: Currently only 2 pitchers are under 5.00 (Yo and Lohse) and 2 have ERAs over 6. Yay.
**I include Hoffman because it’s always a waste to pay for “proven closers”, especially old ones with no stuff.