Wednesday, April 8, 2020

The Goats of 2005: Braden Looper

While my best memory of the 2005 season is the heroic season of Pedro Martinez that I wrote about yesterday, there were plenty of not-so-great memories, too. Above all, 2005 featured its fair share of players that a large segment of the Mets fanbase loved to hate. Near the top of that list was the closer, Braden Looper.

Looper was signed to be the Mets' closer in January 2004. He had been the closer for the Marlins the previous season and, while not great, was competent. He replaced Armando Benitez, who had been traded to the Yankees the previous July.

Braden Looper began his career with the Cardinals in 1996 after being drafted by them in the first round with the #3 overall pick. He made it to the majors a couple of years later, pitching 3.1 innings in 4 appearances for the Cards. He was traded to the Marlins that offseason as part of a package for SS Edgar Rentería.

From 1999 - 2003 Looper pitched out of the Marlins bullpen full-time. In 2002 he closed some games and earned saves for the first time. The following year he became the Marlins' closer when Vladimir Núñez departed as a free agent to Colorado. That season the Marlins won the World Series against the Yankees.

The Marlins elected to let Looper depart as a free agent, and the Mets made the fateful decision to sign him. The likely reason for the signing was that Braden came cheaper than the top closers, but this page on Baseball Almanac shows his salary in 2 seasons in New York as $2 million in 2004 and $5.3 million in 2005, which to me begs the question, WTF? I remember reading about the signing and wondering why the Mets were bothering. They didn't look like contenders heading into 2004, and they most certainly weren't.

This was a typical Mets move that always bugged me through the years. As GM, you really should have understood that you weren't a contender and taken the opportunity to find a young guy with some real stuff and try him out in the role. Instead, Duquette and the rest of the GM by committee squad spent millions on a "proven closer" who was competent but not elite.

Looper's 2004 season with the Mets was actually quite solid. He saved 29 of 34 games for a bad club. His ERA was 2.70, and he only walked 16 guys in 83 IP while allowing just 5 home runs. The problem was the 86 hits allowed and the low strikeout rate for a "closer" of 6.2/9 IP.

My memories of Looper that season was that there always seemed to be men on base, and every save was a nail-biter. And that was his good year in New York.

2005 was decidedly not as good. He pitched fewer innings, 59.1, and his ERA jumped up to 3.94. He blew 8 saves in 36 chances, allowing more HR (8) and walks (22) despite pitching almost 24 fewer innings. He allowed 65 hits, and his strikeout rate dropped to an anemic 4.1/9 IP.

It started badly right from the get-go on opening day in Cincinnati. Pedro Martinez departed with a lead after 6 while striking out 12 in an electrifying preview of what was to come in his first season with the Mets. Looper came in the ninth inning with a 2-run lead and gave up a pair of homers to blow the save and lose the game.

Mets fans, already exasperated with Looper turning almost every save into a near disaster, turned on him big time after that game. Frankly, the fact that he was able to save 28 games with numbers that weak was a testament to how hard he battled. Willie Randolph stubbornly kept sending him out there for saves because he was the "closer" until finally Aaron Heilman and Roberto Hernandez were given chances. Looper left, unlamented, as a free agent following that season and never saved another game.

I never hated Looper as some did, but I wasn't sorry to see him go. As I said, a smart organization would not spend millions on a closer when they weren't contenders. The Mets always were bad at developing competent bullpen arms within their own organization, and that would come back to haunt them in 2007 and 2008.

Looper went on the pitch as a fairly competent middle reliever for the Cardinals in 2006 who beat the Mets in a heartbreaking NLDS. They would go on to win the World Series against a heavily favored Detroit team who played just awful ball in the series. The Cards made him a starting pitcher the following season, he was adequate there for a couple of years and finished up winning 14 games for the Brewers in 2009 despite a WHIP of just under 1.5 and an ERA of 5.22. That would be his final Major League season at age 34.

I never joined in on the Looper hate. Looper seemed to me like the opposite of Armando Benitez, who possessed awesome stuff but lacked the guts of an elite closer. Looper had plenty of guts, but the stuff wasn't there. I was happy to see Looper go, but it was the Mets who made the questionable decision to sign him. Whatever anger I feel is directed at the dopes who made the derision to spend more than 7 million of those Bernie Maddoff dollars on a cut-rate closer.

Back tomorrow. Stay well. everyone.

My Series on the 2005 Season:

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