Aaron Loup Probably Deserved Better

On July 31, the Blue Jays traded Aaron Loup to the Phillies for Jacob Waguespack.

A simple breakdown of the deal would tell you that Waguespack is a 24-year-old right-handed pitcher with impressive strikeout numbers in the minors. He was originally drafted in the 37th round out of high school by the Pirates back in 2012. He didn’t sign, opting instead to play college ball at Ole Miss before latching on with the Phillies as a free agent after his junior season. He was a nondescript prospect until ratcheting up his fastball velocity in 2017 and moving into the starting rotation. There are command issues (3.53 BB/9 in his minor league career), but Waguespack has racked up 312 strikeouts and surrendered just 12 home runs in 303 1/3 innings over four years in the minors. Baseball America put him at No. 29 in their ranking of Philadelphia’s top prospects after 2017.

It would also tell you that Loup was the longest-tenured Blue Jay at the time of his departure, and that he left the organization with a 3.47 ERA, 297 strikeouts and 98 walks in 318 2/3 innings, while currently posting the best strikeout rate of his career. Loup also leaves the Blue Jays with the third-most innings pitched in team history among those who have never started a game. He accumulated 0.4 WARP over the course of his Blue Jays career, with two good seasons, one bad, and three that were essentially replacement level. Those wild swings feel about right, but that final line doesn’t tell the story of Aaron Loup. For a player whose body of work looks alright, Loup’s always held a strange place in the hearts and minds of fans.

Loup’s time with the team would grade out somewhere on the spectrum between average and good. That’s probably not the evaluation that anyone would give you off the top of their head when prompted. Over time, he more or less faded into the background when he wasn’t drawing barbs from the peanut gallery. Despite the overall quality of his work, he still managed to create a lot of hand-wringing among the fanbase. No matter how well he was pitching – how many scoreless innings he had strung together, how many runners he stranded – Loup’s presence inspired a lot of collar-tugging and had a way of injecting nervous energy into the game even when none was needed. And yes, the hit batters, the four-pitch walks and the declining effectiveness against lefties can’t be ignored. There were plenty of times where he was catching bad breaks or just being flat out ineffective — that’s true of any baseball player. For Loup, though, they seemed to stick to him longer than anyone else.

Scrolling through Twitter mentions isn’t the best judge of overall sentiment, but it always seemed that people were quicker to go negative when Loup was in the game. Looking at his mentions from May was particularly revealing. Loup surrendered two runs on May 2, his first game of the month. Those would be the only runs he’d give up until the calendar turned to June. Even as the number of clean innings mounted, though, most tweets that featured his name either discounted his work as low-leverage, or framed them as an indictment of the team overall – the “When Aaron Loup is your third-best pitcher something’s gone wrong” type of take. He closed the month with nine straight hitless outings, yet didn’t seem to get any slack until the final week of May: the thankless life of a middle reliever.

The same Twitter exercise repeated for Ryan Tepera, who blew two saves and posted a 4.73 ERA in May, yielded far more forgiving results. Again, there’s plenty of selection bias in that exercise, but it’s illustrative of Loup’s perception. Once he was bad for a bit, he could never seem to shake the reputation.

Think of the main characters on the 2015 team that rejuvenated baseball in Toronto. Bautista, Donaldson, Encarnacion, Estrada, Price, Tulowitzki, Martin. Keep going. Dip into the lower tier guys like Goins, Colabello, Revere, Lowe. Think about how many are gone. Think about how far down the roster you’ll need to go before you remember that Loup was on that team. It didn’t help that it was his worst year ever at that point, as he posted a 4.46 ERA while surrendering six home runs in only 42 1/3 innings. He posted a BABIP of .339, an insane HR/FB rate of 20.7% and surrendered an Infield Hit rate of 13.0%. Among the 370 pitchers who logged more than 40 innings that season, Loup ranked 340th, 365th and 363rd in those categories, respectively. After three solid campaigns, the wheels seemed to have fallen off, though not nearly to the extent that he might’ve deserved.

Things changed dramatically when Loup needed to leave the team in the middle of both the ALDS and ALCS when his wife Leighann’s water broke 26 weeks into term. Suddenly, the guy many dreaded to see on the mound was in high demand. Loup was needed to combat Kansas City’s left-handed hitters as the only southpaw remaining in the bullpen after Brett Cecil tore his calf picking off Mike Napoli in the ALDS. That’s the speed demon Mike Napoli who stole 39 bases in 1,392 career games. Of course it would be a fluke injury on a fluke sequence that pressed Loup into the spotlight, and of course it happened in the instant when personal matters rendered baseball absolutely irrelevant.

It’s been pretty well established that Loup had some rotten outcomes over these last few years, as most of his stat profile suggested that he was getting roughed up on some bad luck and happenstance. It was death by a thousand dinks and dunks. Loup’s BABIPs over the last four years read like a series of pitcher’s nightmares: .339, .342, .340 and somehow .389 this season. That puts him 388th out of 392 pitchers who have logged 30 or more innings in 2018. When he checked in, you knew that if a ground ball could squeak through the infield or a pop fly could sink just fast enough, it would be bound to happen. Even as metrics improve and we’ve been able to parse out the substantial takeaways from the noise, Loup and his obvious set of bad-luck numbers could never quite escape their specter.

The trade wasn’t surprising given Toronto’s place in the standings and Loup’s status as a pending free agent. Still, it felt a bit odd to look at the roster on August 1st and not see Loup’s name — even though he’s the guy that nobody seemed to remember until he was already jogging to the mound. He was around for the days when Brett Lawrie, JP Arencibia and Colby Rasmus had the makings of a core, with Henderson Alvarez, Drew Hutchison and Kyle Drabek in the rotation. He was around for the excitement and subsequent letdowns of 2013 and 2014, and of course the playoff runs of the two seasons that followed. He ended up just one year short of being the bridge from Brett Lawrie to the Vlad Jr. Era. And he was a constant part of perhaps the most compelling little run in franchise history, even if it wasn’t the most decorated. Loup was always just sort of there, never really standing out aside from when he was catching flak.

There are many roads to the same destination. The fact that Loup ended up posting numbers that were so ordinary in the aggregate belies his unique standing with the fanbase and his role in one of the most significant stretches in the team’s existence. Loup was a fascinating case of the “what have you done for me lately” attitude that dominates public perception in sports, and stretched the limits of what “lately” meant when fan frustration needed an easy target. His story beckoned for a redemption that never came. Time is likely to forget Loup’s tenure with the Jays, as his run was neither the most compelling nor the most satisfying, but he’ll always be a player that riles up some emotions among the die-hards. As for whether those memories will be good or bad or somewhere in between – baseball can be unforgiving when it comes to what’s “deserved.”

Lead Photo © Dan Hamilton – USA Today Sports

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