During this 2020 playoff run, the Tampa Bay Rays have leaned hard on their bullpen to sustain leads. Whether it be the third inning, the sixth, or any any other other point in the game where the Rays have a lead and the need to preserve it, they have turned to their top-end relievers to close out the game.
So far in the playoffs that has mostly meant it was up to Nick Anderson, Diego Castillo, and Pete Fairbanks to end any hopes for the opposition.
Against the New York Yankees and Houston Astros, with their righty-heavy lineups, there hasn’t been a need or an opportunity for left-handed relievers, but this Los Angeles Dodgers offense is different. The Dodgers have three lefty hitters that aren’t going to be platooned: Corey Seager, Max Muncy, and Cody Bellinger. They have another left-handed threat in Joc Pederson, who they do operate as a platoon.
So when a big moment came up in the eighth inning of game two, with the extremely dangerous Bellinger representing the tying run, who did Kevin Cash call upon? Aaron Loup.
The Forgotten Fireman
Aaron Loup didn’t throw a single pitch in the ALDS against the Yankees. Against the Astros he only appeared in four games and threw two and a third innings.
But when the tying run came to the plate in the World Series as a lefty, it was Loup that Cash called for, not Diego Castillo.
Aaron Loup is the most veteran member of the Tampa Bay bullpen. His 7.040 years of service time entering the season was only bested by Charlie Morton’s 11.010 years, while Mike Zunino’s 5.165 years and Kevin Kiermaier’s 5.131 years lead the way on the offensive side of the ball.
Loup joined the Rays on a minor league deal with an invite to Spring Training. A veteran reliever on a minor league contract making the big-league team is not an unusual occurrence on the Rays. They typically extend camp invitations every year to a couple veterans they believe have a strong shot to make the Opening Day roster. These are players they see as major league talent, but who, for one reason or another, aren’t given that guaranteed shot with another team.
Loup has been a very effective reliever throughout his major league career posting a 3.38 ERA/3.50 FIP/3.58 xFIP. Players of this quality aren’t often available on a minor league deals, but Loup saw his 2019 season almost entirely wiped out by injury, which limited him to three and a third innings.
A secondary reason other teams were not interested could be the three-batter rule, new for 2020, which forces a pitcher to face three batters before he can be removed from the game. It’s a rule designed specifically to eliminate LOOGYs.
It’s a good thing he’s more than that.
Closing the Loup
During his career, Loup has been far more effective when facing left-handed batters, holding them to a .233/.302/.320 line and .279 wOBA compared to a .264/.332/.424 line and .324 wOBA to right handed batters. He’s been very good against lefties, and below average but not terrible against right-handed batters.
In this short season, though, he’s posted 25.0 innings with a 2.52 ERA/3.83 FIP/3.81 xFIP while holding lefties to a .261 wOBA and righties to a .281 wOBA. The biggest improvement he’s shown has been a decreased walk rate from 7.0% to 4.2%, while maintaining a 22.9% strikeout rate. It’s an encouraging improvement against right-handed batters, but there’s a career body of work there that suggests he should still be best-used when there are righties to face.
So while his opportunities have been limited the last two rounds, lineups like the Dodgers are why Loup is on this roster. According to the platoon breakdown work by Ian Malinowski posted earlier this week, Loup should be thought of as the second most effective reliever in the bullpen against left-handed hitters. His .249 expected wOBA allowed to lefties only trails Nick Anderson’s .232 rate. He’s slightly better than Fairbanks’ .253 wOBA, and in line with Blake Snell’s expected .250 wOBA.
Dave Roberts has consistently filled out his lineup with alternating handedness in the top half, regardless of pitcher the Dodgers are facing. He’s generally put Seager second, Muncy fourth, and Bellinger sixth. Against a right handed starter he has typically batted Pederson eighth. But in game two, facing Pete Fairbanks, he had pinch hit left-handed hitters Edwin Rios and Pederson in the seventh and eighth spots, which created a run of three straight lefties.
This was an ideal spot for Loup to get into the game. The only right-handed pinch hit option on the Dodgers’ bench was Austin Barnes who is far less worrisome matchup against a left-handed pitcher than Rios and Pederson against a righty.
Loup will be ready often in this series, in case he’s needed against the top lefties in the Dodgers lineup, who are incidentally some of the top lefties in the league. That statement shouldn’t leave you apprehensive. These are the spots that Loup is good at. It’s what he’s on the team for.
The ideal situation will be Loup coming in with two outs and retiring the only batter he faces, but there will be times when he will need to pitch around righties like Justin Turner or Will Smith in order to get two out of three good matchups when the Rays go through the heart of the Dodgers order.
In the past to series, the Rays relied on Anderson, Fairbanks, and Castillo as their “A Bullpen” to close out games, but against the Dodgers Loup joins them in the quartet of high leverage arms that Cash will be happy to call in with a slim lead.
Loup passed the test in his first opportunity, and if the Rays are to win the World Series, he’s a player who will get several more chances to contribute to that victory.