In search of the all-time greatest LOOGY season
When baseball returns, one thing is certain: There will be no LOOGYs. For nearly three decades, the Left-handed, One Out Guy (LOOGY) has been a staple on Major League Baseball rosters. Akin to a batter primarily kept around to pinch hit, a LOOGY’s main job was performing a niche function — enter a game to leverage a lefty-on-lefty advantage against a single hitter.
But when baseball’s potentates made plans last year to try to speed up the game, they decided each pitcher who makes an appearance be required to face at least three batters (unless there is injury or illness) or end a half-inning. This edict effectively extinguished the possibility of regularly seeing those LOOGY one-and-done matchups anymore.
This isn’t the first time the sport has changed the way pitchers go about their business. In 1920, it banned the use of spitballs (although purveyors of real loogys were grandfathered in, so the practice lasted until 1934). Then, following the 1968 campaign, baseball lowered pitching mounds from 15 to 10 inches in the hopes of improving offensive production. More recently, juiced baseballs have also impacted pitchers. However, none of those changes effectively took away a well-defined role on a big league pitching staff the way this one does.
To that end, over the past year, eulogies and commentaries have been composed for the LOOGY. The Athletic’s Jayson Stark even created an imaginary LOOGY Hall of Fame. But with the LOOGY history book now closed, one pressing question remains: What is the all-time greatest singular Left-Handed, One Out Guy season?
This article looks to offer answers.
Setting basic LOOGY criteria
Before answering the question posed here, defining what type of season even qualifies as a true LOOGY campaign is necessary. Back in 2005, writer Steve Treder took a crack over two articles in defining the criteria necessary to make a season LOOGY-certified. While these were useful, they were somewhat liberal. To truly be the greatest season-long LOOGY effort, it needed to ooze with tenets of this distinctive job.
As such, the baseline standards to even be considered for the superlative LOOGY season required two elements:
- Having more game appearances than innings pitched. This addresses the “One Out” part of the LOOGY moniker, assuring that each candidate, at the least, threw an average of less than one inning per performance.
- Facing more left-handed hitters than right-handers. This was required to embody the “Left-handed” part of the name, and it wasn’t easy to qualify on this one. After all, Major League Baseball has vastly more right-handed batters (or switch hitters who can bat righty to sidestep the left-on-left advantage), than it does left-handers. In 2019, for example, MLB had 618 right-handers, 290 left-handers and 82 switch hitters come to the plate, according to Stathead.com. That means left-handed hitters only represented 29 percent of big league batters.
One could argue this second element is too stringent. But, again, to embody the essence of the LOOGY it was a must. The truly superlative LOOGY campaign requires a year in which the manager primarily deployed the pitcher in the truest sense of the word.
With those basics in place, hundreds of seasons were considered for the greatest title. The criteria — predominantly the majority left-handed hitter rule — weeded out some great efforts such as Dennys Reyes’ 2006 masterpiece, Scott Downs’ 2014 gem or J.P. Howell’s excellent work in 2015.
Narrowing the list
From there, more than three dozen qualifying performances were closely scrutinized. They ranged from well-above average to exceptional. But determining where they fell on the spectrum depended on what set of analytics should be emphasized. Some lefties impressed in traditional stats; others were a sabermetic dream; and some just exemplified the LOOGY credo the best.
Statistics are well-known in the first two categories — traditional and sabermetrics — but a set of contextual stats were necessary just for LOOGYs. These numbers needed to specifically reflect the core of what defined success and failure for the LOOGY — in other words, the work done when facing just one batter.
For these purposes, the pure LOOGY-ness of a season was determined by:
- PT (Perfect Third): This is when a LOOGY faced one batter in an appearance and got that batter out.
- GT (Golden Third): A step above the PT, this is when a LOOGY faced one batter in an appearance and struck out that batter.
- OBTO (One Batter, Two Outs): The rare pinnacle of a LOOGY outing, this is when a LOOGY faced one batter in an appearance and got two outs. This typically occurred when a runner was on base and the LOOGY induced a double play (though a caught stealing during the course of retiring a single batter also counts).
- LUMP (Lamentably Unproductive Mound Performance): This statistic represents the nadir of LOOGY existence. It occurs when a pitcher enters a game and fails to get a single out. Admittedly, this situation is not solely the domain of LOOGYs. (Sometimes pitchers of all stripes face multiple batters and can’t retire a single one.) But the brief nature of the vast majority of Left-handed, One Out Guy appearances (i.e. face one hitter and either get him out or not and then depart) made them principally susceptible. In fact, LOOGYs (or those who spent part of their careers as LOOGYs) completely fill the career top-10 list in this category. Mike Myers, who made Stark’s LOOGY Hall of Fame and is discussed in more detail below, is the record holder with 129 lifetime LUMPs, according to Stathead.com.
Further culling the list required a second baseline. In determining the comprehensively great, a LOOGY campaign needed to excel in all three categories — traditional, advanced analytics and LOOGY stats. It may be a bit arbitrary, but performance in one statistic from each category was chosen to represent success in that area.
The top LOOGY season was required to include:
- Traditional: An ERA below 2.00
- Advanced: A WAR greater than 1.2 (bWAR was used over fWAR because it tended to provide more uniform valuations in judging the unique role of the LOOGY)
- LOOGY: At least 15 PTs (Perfect Thirds)
In the ballpark, but not the best
This narrowed the list considerably. Some terrific all-around years fell just short, such as Tony Sipp’s in 2018, Trever Miller’s in 2009, Kevin Siegrist’s in 2013 and Randy Choate’s in 2011 (sadly, an August elbow injury for Choate limited that campaign).
Perhaps, the most remarkable LOOGY season that didn’t make it was Tyler Olson’s work for the Cleveland Indians in 2017. That year, the southpaw pitched 20 innings over 30 games (facing 54.4 percent left-handed batters). He didn’t reach the Majors until late in the summer, but over the course of his limited big league campaign — from July 21 to the end of the season — Olson didn’t allow a single earned run (0.00 ERA). While impressive, Olson’s LOOGY metrics were quite pedestrian: He only registered 6 PTs and took a surprisingly high 4 LUMPs, considering his overall performance and length of time in the big leagues that year.
Also worth noting along these lines was Jerry Blevins’ brief Major League effort with the New York Mets in 2015. He only appeared in 5 innings over 7 games that season but got every batter he faced out — and 14 of the 15 he squared off against were left-handed. (Blevins also had really good full LOOGY seasons, including ones with the Mets in 2016 and 2017).
Other pitchers who didn’t make the overall grade also deserve honorable mentions. Matt Thornton excelled as a LOOGY, putting up great specialist numbers in both 2014 and 2015. But with the Washington Nationals in 2015, he did something significantly spectacular for a LOOGY. While he earned a solid 11 PTs, he didn’t register a single LUMP. In every other season considered here, a pitcher had at least one instance in which he had to hand the ball over to his skipper without recording a single out. Thornton was the only one not to suffer that ignominy.
A shout out also goes to Graeme Lloyd. His work in 1998 was probably the greatest for a LOOGY en route to a World Series championship. Javier López (see below) won multiple titles while serving a LOOGY’s role, but López’s best years weren’t during those trophy-hoisting runs. On the other hand, Lloyd, who registered a 1.67 ERA, 1.1 bWAR and 13 PTs in 1998, delivered his most brilliant work while helping the Yankees win the title. Not only that, but, in top LOOGY fashion, he also earned a Perfect Third in the World Series. Clinging to a one run lead in the bottom of the seventh of game three, Lloyd was brought in to face tough left-handed hitter Steve Finley. He induced a ground ball out and then gave way to Ramiro Mendoza in what would eventually be a victory against the San Diego Padres.
The greatest seasons
Ultimately, choosing the greatest of any seasons is a subjective task. When you get to a certain point, only personal preference can answer that question. For instance, in 1941, who had a greater year: Ted Williams (and his .406 batting average) or Joe DiMaggio (and his 56-game hit streak)? It could be endlessly debated. The same goes for the greatest-of-the-great LOOGY seasons.
For your consideration, here are five options (in chronological order):
1995: Tony Fossas (St. Louis Cardinals)
G: 58/IP: 36.2/W-L: 3–0/Sv: 0/ERA: 1.47/WHIP: 1.036/BB: 10/K: 40/K/9: 9.8
bWar: 1.5/fWar: 1/FIP: 2.18/ERA+: 284/high leverage BAA: .094 (36 PA)
PT: 20/GT: 9/OBTO: 1/LUMP: 3/%LHH: 50.3/LHBA: .174 (73 PA)/LHOPS: .444
Overview: Bill Henry was arguably the first-ever LOOGY. His 1966 campaign with the San Francisco Giants set the bar for Left-handed, One Out Guys decades later. That year, Henry went 1–1 with a 2.45 ERA in 35 games over 22 innings. He faced 50.5 percent lefties and logged 11 PTs. But when it came to making a career out of being a LOOGY, Fossas is the real OG. The southpaw didn’t break into the Majors until he was 30 years old in 1988. As a trailblazer, he delivered a number of robust LOOGY campaigns, primarily with the Boston Red Sox and St. Louis Cardinals over 12 years.
Why this is the best: Fossas showed an impressive ability to avoid LUMPs. He only had three of them while still producing 20 PTs, including 9 instances when he recorded a GT (Golden Third) by striking out the lone batter he faced. No other LOOGY season here included so few LUMPs. He was also at his best in the most stressful situations. No pitcher on this list held opponents to a lower batting average (.094) in situations defined by Baseball-Reference.com as “high leverage” (instances with the greatest potential to shift win probability).
Why it isn’t: When it comes to the definition of a true LOOGY, this one barely qualifies. Fossas only faced 73 lefties compared to 72 righties. That said, this was during the early days of the LOOGY so the fact that he could even qualify by barely facing more lefties than righties says something. Also, while Fossas certainly took care of left-handed hitters, holding them to a combined .174 batting average, that places him just third out of five on this list.
2000: Mike Myers (Colorado Rockies)
G: 78/IP: 45.1/W-L: 0–1/Sv: 1/ERA: 1.99/WHIP: 1.059/BB: 24/K: 41/K/9: 8.1
bWar: 2.6/fWar: 0.9/FIP: 3.62/ERA+: 294/high leverage BA: .105 (46 PA)
PT: 24/GT: 10/OBTO: 4/LUMP: 12/%LHH: 57.1/LHBA: .120 (101 PA)/LHOPS: .405
Overview: The submariner carved out a 13-year career as a durable reliever. He led the American League twice in appearances (1996 and 1997 with the Detroit Tigers) and, so much of his time in the Majors came as a true LOOGY. Consider this: He faced 2,385 left-handed hitters — which is the most by any LHP in baseball history who faced more lefties than righties in his career. He also earned a ring as a member of the 2004 Boston Red Sox.
Why this is the best: For lovers of advanced metrics, Myers’ 2000 campaign is a LOOGY exemplar. The lefty earned a 2.6 bWAR that year (fWAR was not a generous pegging him at a 0.9). Not only that, but the fact that Myers could put up good enough all-around numbers to make this list is notable considering 100 of the 177 hitters he faced that year came at Coors Field. In 2000, during the pre-humidor years, the Rockies home field was a hitters’ paradise. That season, a bloated 6.25 runs were scored per game in Denver’s rarified air. Yet, somehow, Myers was able to hold batters to a .163 batting average in home games. As was the case throughout his career, he was also the LOOGY workhorse on this list, appearing in more contests than any of his competitors. Finally, Myers converted 4 OBTOs (One Batter, Two Outs) in 2000, which ranks no. 1 in this group.
Why it isn’t: Numbers are numbers — even at Coors Field. In each category — traditional, advanced and LOOGY — Myers placed at the bottom of this group in at least one key stat. His 1.99 ERA and 1.059 WHIP are both the weakest of the bunch as is his 3.62 FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching). Myers also struggled to avoid LUMPs, registering 12 of them in 2000 — worst among finalists in that category.
2010: Joe Thatcher (San Diego Padres)
G: 65/IP: 35/W-L: 1–0/SV: 0/ERA: 1.29/WHIP: 0.857/BB: 7/K: 45/K/9: 11.6
bWar: 1.3/fWar: 0.2/FIP: 1.56/ERA+: 288/high leverage BA: .280 (31 PA)
PT: 22/GT: 14/OBTO: 0/LUMP: 10/%LHH: 51.8/LHBA: .198 (73 PA)/LHOPS: .527
Overview: Thatcher took the hard road to the Major Leagues. Undrafted out of Indiana State University, he excelled in independent baseball’s Frontier League before earning a contract with the Milwaukee Brewers. He wasn’t an overpowering pitcher, relying on a mid- to high-80s fastball (in his signature season, his heater averaged 86.3 mph, according to FanGraphs). But with a 77 mph slider, he made it work, pitching in nine big league seasons.
Why this is the best: Thatcher posted the best ERA in the group (1.29) and advanced metrics indicate that minuscule number was no fluke. (His FIP was 1.56.) He also dominated with flair. The LOOGY notched 22 PTs (Perfect Thirds), which didn’t lead this group. But he converted 14 of those with a strike out and that total of GTs (Golden Thirds) was tops among the candidates.
Why it isn’t: If the greatest LOOGY season requires dominating left-handed hitters, this one isn’t the archetype. Lefties hit .198 with a .527 OPS against Thatcher in 2000. While those numbers show Thatcher was productive in lefty-on-lefty matchups, they represent the worst performance against same-handed hitters compared to the competition here. Also, Thatcher suffered through 10 LUMPs (second-worst on the list) and didn’t do his best work in high leverage situations as hitters tallied a healthy .280 in 31 plate appearances under those conditions.
2015: Javier López (San Francisco Giants)
G: 77/IP: 39.1/W-L: 3–0/Sv: 0/ERA: 1.60/WHIP: 0.89/BB: 16/K: 26/K/9: 5.9
bWar: 1.4/fWar: 0.2/FIP: 3.36/ERA+: 242/high leverage BA: .147 (41 PA)
PT: 34/GT: 5/OBTO: 3/LUMP: 9/%LHH: 65.3/LHBA: .112 (96 PA)/LHOPS: .323
Overview: Over the course of his 14-year career, López delivered so many great LOOGY moments. As noted by Stark, López was the only left-hander in history “to face exactly one hitter in 40-plus appearances in back-to-back seasons (2015–2016).” He also registered more one-pitch outings (34) than any other reliever (lefty or righty) in baseball’s long history. Along with his regular season success, he showed his mettle in the playoffs. After winning a Word Series with the Red Sox in 2007, he was a key cog in the San Francisco Giants’ three championships in the 2010s (2010, 2012, 2014). During those post-seasons, López faced 44 hitters and allowed just five hits.
Why this is the best: If you believe that a LOOGY’s true greatness comes from excelling in single-batter situations and doing it against left-handed hitters, it’s hard not to put this campaign on a pedestal. López converted 34 PTs in 2015, which makes him the only hurler on this list to surpass 30 Perfect Thirds. He did this by facing a greater percentage of lefties than any of his competitors (65.3 percent of all the hitters he faced) and by owning those batters. In 94 plate appearances, lefty hitters mustered a shockingly weak .112 batting average and .323 OPS.
Why it isn’t: While López’s 1.60 ERA appears impressive, advanced statistics signal it shouldn’t have been quite so eye-popping. His 3.36 FIP was second-worst and his ERA+ of 242 was the lowest amongst the candidates here. López did earn 34 PTs, but he was far from perfect in those situations as he endured 9 LUMPs in 2015. Finally, his fWAR (0.2) was tied for weakest of the bunch.
2018: Oliver Perez (Cleveland Indians)
G: 51/IP: 32.1/W-L: 1–1/Sv: 0/ERA: 1.39/WHIP: 0.742/BB: 7/K: 43/K/9: 12
bWar: 1.3/fWar: 1/FIP: 1.74/ERA+: 313/high leverage BA: .115 (26 PA)
PT: 15/GT: 7/OBTO: 1/LUMP: 4/%LHH: 54.2/LHBA: .194 (65 PA)/LHOPS: .490
Overview: Perez represents a certain LOOGY legacy: Pitchers who played other roles before becoming a Left-handed, One Out Guy. All-Star relievers such as Jesse Orosco and Dan Pleasac spent years as all-purpose/closer bullpen arms before settling into LOOGY status. In the case of Perez, he was a long-time starter. He made double-digit starts in nine seasons during the first half of his career, including leading the National League in starts in 2008.
Why this is the best: You want domination, Perez delivered. While his ERA (1.39) is second-best, Perez’s WHIP (0.742) and strike outs per nine innings (12) are peaks here. In addition, his ERA+ stands out. In that stat, which compares ERA against league averages, Perez was dominant, earning a 313, meaning his ERA was 213 times better than the league average. The southpaw was also particularly tough in high leverage situations, yielding a paltry .115 batting average (28 plate appearances) in those instances.
Why it isn’t: Although 54.2 percent of the batters he faced were left-handed, relatively speaking, he wasn’t a beast in those situations. Lefties hit .194 against Perez in 2018, which was second-worst for any of these seasons. Perez also wasn’t deployed in one-out situations as much as the other candidates. He tallied just 15 PTs. Though, to his credit he converted 7 of those into Golden Thirds with strike outs. Also, he suffered through just 4 LUMPs.