'Not that crazy': Redbirds believe Looper can be a starter
By Derrick Goold
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
Sunday, Dec. 17 2006
Consider the climate of the Cardinals bullpen when Braden Looper was first presented with a peculiar idea.
Rookie Anthony Reyes had recently found hanging in his locker an empty sunflower seed bucket, relabeled "Hair Gel" by a reliever. A short time later Looper retaliated for a prank pulled on him by grabbing scissors and tailoring two teammates' jeans. So when pitching coach Dave Duncan approached Looper late
in the regular season about experimenting as a starter, the righthanded reliever braced for the punch line.
"I thought he was joking," Looper said.
"At the time it was just real casual. I thought we were fooling around with each other and he was having a little fun with me," the reliever continued. "Then he said, 'No, no, I'm serious.'"
When Duncan shopped his notion after the playoffs, manager Tony La Russa and general manager Walt Jocketty shared Looper's initial shock. The suggestion was to make a starter out of a pitcher who since his freshman year at Wichita State had made 713 appearances, only 17 of which were starts. As far back as when they drafted in him in 1996, Looper was billed as the Cardinals' future closer. As recently as September he was considered for that job in Jason Isringhausen's absence.
Now the Cardinals have failed to sign a few targeted free-agent starting pitchers this month and La Russa went public with the Looper Project. The response was surprise — and skepticism.
No, no, Duncan is serious.
"I don't think there's any question that physically he can handle the demands of being a starting pitcher," Duncan said Friday. "The question is, 'Does he have the pitches to be an effective starting pitcher?' (Jocketty and La Russa)
had to think about it. I can understand that. We felt it was not that crazy of a thing to do. It's just something that has enough of a chance to work that it's worth trying."
The Cardinals have made competitive offers to three starting pitchers who have chosen to sign elsewhere, leaving the World Series champions with two vacancies in their rotation. While hoping to sign at least one more pitcher, Jocketty has
said the team is comfortable with its "internal candidates."
Relievers Adam Wainwright, Brad Thompson and Looper will report to Jupiter, Fla., for spring training and begin a starter's regimen. Wainwright has 135 starts in 137 minor-league appearances and his future is as a starter. Thompson worked through the minors as a starter.
Looper has more wild pitches as a pro than starts, 13 to 12.
He hasn't started a game since 1997, only started five games before becoming an All-America closer in college, and has never started a game at a level higher than Class A.
"He's durable. He's stronger," Jocketty said. "He has three or four quality pitches that he could better use in a starting role. Dave Duncan feels very strongly that he has all the assets it takes to be a quality starter."
Duncan has done something like this before. When Oakland signed Dave Stewart in 1986, the righthander had just five starts in his previous 54 appearances. He became the ace of the A's. When Kent Bottenfield became a Cardinal, he had one start in his previous 154 appearances before making the first of 17 starts. The next year he won 18 games. But both pitchers had seasons of starting on their résumé before their bullpen years.
As pitchers go, Looper's a bullpen lifer.
The Cardinals brought him back last winter, signed him to a three-year deal and said he would be Isringhausen's setup guy and possible successor. But as he has traipsed from being the Marlins' closer to being the Mets' closer, miles have dropped off Looper's 98-mph fastball. He has become more reliant on his slider and has developed a split-finger fastball.
Those are just some of the traits that got Duncan thinking.
A season removed from shoulder surgery and stacking 220 pounds on a 6-foot-3 frame, Looper has the build to weather starting, Duncan said. Looper's breaking pitch became more consistent later in 2006, and Duncan saw a growing ability to use more than just two pitches when needed. Looper's healthy shoulder and slider worked to erase one glowing concern:
"I know some of it will be feeling my way through," Looper said last week. "And I know that if I make a start (the opponent) is going to put as many lefties as possible in there against me."
In 2005, lefties slugged .578 against Looper, and of the 132 he faced, he struck out only eight. Before the 2006 All-Star break, 52 of the 160 batters he faced were lefties and they slugged .581 off him. But after the break, Looper reasserted the inside edge on lefties and hacked the gaudy numbers in half. He faced 60 lefties after the break, striking out nine and holding them all to a .196 average and .255 slugging percentage.
Weeks after it was first mentioned, Duncan's idea crystallized for Looper in October.
His career high for innings pitched in a major-league game is three. The fourth time that he has ever thrown that much was in the NL Championship Series, swallowing innings in a Game 4 loss. He had to face all hitters, had to use all four of his pitches. Looper allowed one run — a Carlos Beltran homer — and two hits to 10 batters.
"It was a weird thing because I normally don't have to suck up the innings like that," Looper said. "But one thing I mentioned to Duncan ."‰."‰. one of my problems has been I stick with the pitches I know best, the ones I can count on, when I throw the one inning. That opportunity forced me to use my other pitches and I got comfortable."
This offseason, Looper has dialed Wainwright, one of the teammates who had his jeans sheared into shorts, for tips on how best to prep to start. Wainwright thought he was joking, too. The belief it's a parlor trick or a patch for a championship club short on pitching will linger at least until Looper makes his first start. But as it has been for others in the organization, Looper's initial surprise and uncertainty has warmed to Duncan's plan.
It is as Duncan said: "Not so crazy."
"That was my first reaction," Looper said. "The more I thought about it, the more I have thought about, the more excited I get about the possibility. I'm giddy, really."