Aaron Loup is Losing Control

Tom Szczerbowski

Aaron Loup came into the 2014 season as a guy known for throwing strikes, this year it's been a different story.

There's a reason that John Gibbons took a liking to Aaron Loup from the moment the skipper returned to the Blue Jays.

Loup was the very definition of a reliable reliever: he didn't put guys on base, he kept the ball on the ground, and he rarely gave up the big hit.

To say that Loup is a totally different guy this season would be something of an overstatement given that he has still been a solid contributor to the Jays bullpen. With a 3.38 ERA, a 3.37 FIP and a WAR of 0.6 less than halfway through the season, it's not as if the southpaw has morphed into a completely useless scrub in 2014.

That being said, the difference between Loup's 2014 and his previous work is pretty significant.

Time Period

Innings Pitched

K/9

BB/9

HR/9

BABIP

Ground Ball %

ERA

FIP

xFIP

2012-2013

100.0

6.66

1.35

0.45

.292

58.5%

2.52

2.89

3.25

2014

32.2

7.59

5.34

0.00

.229

48.7%

3.38

3.37

4.22

The thing that jumps out here is the massive increase in walks. A BB/9 of 1.35 is absolutely fantastic, the work of control artist, while a BB/9 of 5.34 is the work of a guy like Edinson Volquez.

In fact, Loup has already walked more batters in 2014 (19) than he did in the previous two seasons combined (15). Because he has allowed a minuscule BABIP and no home runs, Loup has survived in 2014, but he hasn't excelled like he did in his first two seasons.

The most obvious explanation for this phenomenon is that Loup just isn't throwing strikes anymore, and to an extent that explanation fits the bill.

Time Period

Raw Strike Percentage

Zone Percentage

2012-2013

64.5%

48.2%

2014

61.0%

44.7%

There is no doubt that Loup is struggling to find the zone compared to previous years, and isn't compensating with significantly more swings on pitches outside the zone, resulting in a lower strike percentage. Looking at it visually it's apparent that the left-hander demonstrated excellent command in his first two years:

While appearing more wild this year...

Beyond overall command issues, Loup has also been pounding the bottom of the zone less, which could account for his dropping ground ball rate.

These pictures are informative, but there is something missing. That something is what's happening in three-ball counts.

Traditionally, the walk-averse Loup has attacked hitters in the zone when the count reaches three balls like so:

This year when it gets to a three-ball count Loup has been unable to attack in the same manner:

The pictures tell the story here, but the table below wraps up the quantification:

Time Period

# of Three Ball Counts

Pitches in the Strike Zone

Zone %

2012-2013

94

62

66.0%

2014

35

12

34.3%

It's difficult to tell how much of this is luck and how much of it is meaningful. Analyzing relievers is always a dangerous game due to small samples, especially when breaking it down to something like three-strike counts.

However, the difference here is so significant that it's worth noting. On a wider scale it's clear that Loup is struggling to find the zone and with three balls that issue has been much, much worse.

I'm not one to explain this phenomenon by attributing it to a mental hurdle to overcome or some kind of lack of "clutchness" on Loup's part when he really needs a strike. More likely, the reliever has struggled to put his pitches where he wants them all season and the frustrating inability to command his arsenal has just reared its ugly head at the most inopportune times.

What this is more than anything is a sign that the southpaw is struggling with not only command but basic control. We know that he's throwing fewer strikes and walking more batters, but what this three-strike count information tells us is that even when Loup is really targeting the zone to avoid walks, he's been missing consistenly. This is a symptom not the disease.

It's unclear exactly what the disease is, it could be mechanical, mental or Loup fighting through some kind of nagging injury. (Note: I am not trying to start some kind of "Loup is injured" speculation, if I was I'd have put it in the headline to attract page views).

What is clear is that if Aaron Loup doesn't get back to throwing strikes he'll be hard pressed to continue enjoying the kind of success he is accustomed to. More importantly, he could lose the prestigious title of "Gibby's Favorite".

That's a fate I wouldn't wish upon my worst enemy.

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