Jeff Locke was drafted by the Atlanta Braves in the second round of the 2006 MLB draft. From there he constantly moved up the Braves’ top prospect list, ranking #19 in 2007, #8 in 2008, and #7 coming in to the 2009 season, according to Baseball America. Locke has been the center of many trade rumors over the last year, whether it’s the reports that the Pirates wanted him in return for Jason Bay, or that San Diego wanted him in return in a Jake Peavy deal.
On June 3rd this season the Pirates traded Nate McLouth, their 2008 All-Star Game representative, and 2008 Gold Glove winner, in exchange for Locke, Gorkys Hernandez, and Charlie Morton. Since the trade Locke has put up a 4.69 ERA, but has improved his walk ratios, from a 5.18 BB/9 ratio with Myrtle Beach before the trade, to a 2.28 BB/9 ratio since the trade. Recently he’s had a lot of success, with nine runs in his last 27 innings over five starts, with the worst start being an unlucky five run in 5.2 innings outing that I caught on video.
While at the Lynchburg Hillcats game on Monday, August 24th, I had a chance to interview Jeff:
Tim: You came to the Pirates in a trade back in June. How did it feel to get traded?
Jeff: You can look at it a lot of different ways. All of them positive. You can look at it as a honor. I’ve been rumored in many trades since I was drafted in 06. This was kind of a surprise for me, because you didn’t hear much about it before it happened. It just kind of came out of nowhere and it happened. I was honored to be traded, especially for an All-Star like Nate. It’s a good feeling, I was having a tough year in Myrtle Beach to start out. I took it as a learning lesson, and just to start the season over fresh again. I’ve been learning a lot of new things over here. I’ve adjusted well to the workouts and the running. Everything’s gone really well, I’ve met a lot of really good guys, and I’m just honored.
Tim: You mentioned the trade rumors. In the off-season there were rumors that San Diego requested you as a part of a Jake Peavy trade. There were reports that came out that last year the Pirates had requested you initially in a Jason Bay trade. You mention you hear the rumors, do they ever affect you in any way.
Jeff: No. I’m not a guy who looks on the computer a lot to see what people say about you. A lot of people are going to have different opinions. A lot of people are going to like you, a lot of people are going to hate you. I usually hear it from other people, family members, friends: “hey, you’re being jumbled around in a trade for so and so”. I usually just shake it off, it’s not really a big deal. This past off-season with my name going around in the Peavy trade, every day I woke up I was anxious, nervous, excited, not because I didn’t want to play in Atlanta, just because it’s a good feeling to know that you’re involved in some kind of deal. At first, I was the only new guy to come over here to the team in Lynchburg, and since the trade deadline the whole team has changed a little bit. It’s been great to talk to (Josh) Harrison and (Nathan) Adcock and other guys who have come over, because I was in their shoes before the All-Star break. I was nervous when I first got over here to meet new guys, but the one thing I can say here about the team in Lynchburg is that I didn’t introduce myself to one person on the team. Everybody came up to me and welcomed me and made me feel at home.
Tim: You mention the struggle at the start of the year, you had a lot of walks to start the year in high A at Myrtle Beach. It was more than double your pace in previous years. What would you say caused the increase in walks?
Jeff: I would really just say preparation. Mentally, maybe thinking too much out on the mound instead of just executing a pitch like I do now. Working with Wally Whitehurst, the pitching coach here in Lynchburg, we work primarily on not thinking right now. It’s just execute a pitch, make a pitch, don’t worry about the outcome. Just make that pitch the best pitch you can make at that time. When I was in Myrtle I was struggling a bit with preparation. Now I seem to be getting ready for games much better. Just little things like that, everything from getting up and having a good breakfast to getting to the ballpark with the right mindset, all makes a difference.
Tim: You have corrected the walk rate since coming to Lynchburg, it’s gone back to your normal rate. Would you say preparation is the only thing, or has there been any mechanical issues that they’ve worked with you on?
Jeff: Another thing for me is that I need to mix my pitches up, and that’s what I’ve been doing of late, is incorporating my fastball, changeup, and curveball in to the hitters. When I’m getting behind guys you’re forced to throw a fastball, fastball, fastball, and especially at the level we’re at here in high A, you’ve gotta establish the fastball and you’ve gotta command it. If you can’t command your fastball then you might not ever see AA anyway. So like I said, preparation is huge, but just wanting to come to the park everyday and work, and there has been times this season where it’s just been so frustrating, where you didn’t think it was ever going to get better. I guess since then we’ve been looking up and things have been much better. It’s also great to pitch on a team with the kind of talent there is with Rudy (Owens), and with Justin Wilson. Every time a guy goes out and has a great outing you want to go out and have one too, and it becomes fun again. This whole season, as poor as I’m going to consider it personally as a season for me, I’ve learned more this year than any other year I’ve been in pro ball.
Tim: You’ve had a lot of success lately in your recent starts. Is there anything you’re doing different, anything that is suddenly working better for you?
Jeff: Like I can’t stress enough, just the preparation and knowing the hitters over seeing them time after time after time. I’ve been able to throw against Myrtle Beach three times this season, that’s where I came from, and it didn’t really feel like a game against those guys, it was more like Spring Training, facing them all over again. I don’t know how many times I’ve faced Wilmington this season, but I’m about to throw against them again. Just kind of focusing on pitching, and trying to make a pitch, opposed to “oh man, I can’t walk this guy” or “I can’t give up a hit here”. You’ve just gotta pitch, and let every thing else take care or it’s self. As a pitcher you’ve got one thing to do, and once you release the ball you’ve got no control over what happens. You just need to make your best pitch possible. You’ve got seven guys behind you, and a catcher who are all going to take good care of you and do their best for you. The other night during a rain delay I was thinking to myself “am I going to go back in”? I had given up one run and we were down 1-0 after three, and sure enough I come out of the game after five and it’s 4-1. Like I said, the team here just never stops fighting. It puts a lot of confidence in you when you have one good start, you like to roll it over and have another one. No one likes to lose.
Tim: You mentioned your old team, you played three times since the trade. You know their hitters, they know your pitching tendencies. Who would you say has the
e in that type of situation.
Jeff: You’d almost have to say I do, just because I’m the pitcher. I know what I’m going to throw and they don’t have a clue…I think the pitcher in any battle is going to have the advantage. They’ve hit me well. They’re good. There’s a lot of good talent over there, and a lot of people thought that they would really go down hill when they sent (Freddie) Freeman and (Jason) Heyward, but they’ve been able to hang on and I’m glad to see those two guys are doing well up in AA.
Tim: What would you say is the strongest part of your game?
Jeff: I think the strongest part would be my mental toughness. Nothing really gets to me that much. I’m not afraid to give up hits. I’m not afraid to lose. I ask a lot of myself and I demand a lot. I want to pitch well, just as everybody wants to pitch well. I demand a lot from myself and I like to be proud of myself, and I respect myself. If I go out and have a poor outing in 2-3 innings, and we lose the game by one run, regardless I’m always going to take blame for things that happen. I’m one that always takes responsibility for my actions. There’s been many outings this season when I’ve either reached an inning pitch count, or reached a pitch count of 80, 90, or 100 in fewer innings than I should have, and that doesn’t help the team win. My goal has never been about stats, and has never been about my wins and losses. I’ve always played as a team player. What’s important to me, if I go out and give a strong five, and the team is still in the game winning or losing, that’s all that matters to me.
Tim: You mentioned you have a lot of good pitchers here now in Lynchburg. With the system kind of thin at the start of the year the goal was to bring in a lot of pitching talent. How does it feel as one of the pitchers that’s relied on for the future, added with the expectations of being acquired in the McLouth trade. How does that feel knowing that Pittsburgh fans are looking to you guys as a part of the future?
Jeff: To be honest, it feels good to be involved in a trade for anybody, it’s probably going to be a good feeling, let alone it being Nate. Nate had a spectacular year last year, and I have a lot of friends that live close to Pittsburgh, and they called me when it all happened and said “no one’s happy right now about the trade, you’ve got a lot of work to do”. The trade with myself, Gorkys, and Morton, yes Morton’s up there now, but you’re not going to really see the results of this trade until Gorkys or myself is big league ready. In future years, they’ll be able to judge for themselves. I like the pressure of having to perform. I’m not performing for bloggers or fans of the Pirates, you’ve got to do it for yourself. The ultimate goal is to win a World Series, you’re not playing to have a .500 record. There’s so much young talent here, and the ceiling is invisible for all of these guys. Everyone here is focused, I’m focused, and hopefully we’re ready to give the city of Pittsburgh what they’ve been waiting for.
Tim: One last thing I’ve gotta ask. For people that can’t see you right now, you’re sporting a New England Patriots hat. What’s the deal there?
Jeff: Being a New Hampshire guy, a New England guy, for anyone who’s ever been up in New England, New England sports is big. It’s not like being down in the south where you have multiple teams to root for. The Patriots, Red Sox, Celtics, and Bruins own a nation of fans. It’s an unbelievable feeling. I spent a lot of time growing up at Red Sox games, a lot of time at Patriots games. As a professional athlete you give a lot of credit to the guys in other sports who go out and bust their butt every day, and you respect them and they respect you. I’ve been a Pats fan my whole life, you don’t pick and choose. It’s either you’re a Pats fan or you’re not a football fan. I hope we have a good year, with a healthy Brady back. I think the Brady injury was a fluke, he’s never been hurt in his life, hopefully he comes back and rebounds. Hopefully an 11-5 record will put them in the playoffs this year, but I think they can win 12 games, so we’ll shoot for that.
Tim: So the future looks good for not only the Patriots, but for the future of the Pirates as well.
One of the most interesting things I took from this interview was how Locke talked about playing off of the success of other pitchers. Let’s go back to the end of July and look at a few things that changed. Locke had a 5.95 ERA in 42.1 innings pitched with Lynchburg leading up to his July 29th start. In the next six starts he had a 2.73 ERA in 33 innings of work, which is really good considering that one bad luck start.
What else happened at the end of July?
-Ronald Uviedo returned from the disabled list, and has posted a 3.18 ERA in five August appearances.
-Rudy Owens was promoted from West Virginia, and has a 2.95 ERA so far.
-Nathan Adcock was brought in, and currently sports a 3.50 ERA, piggybacking starts with Uviedo.
-Justin Wilson has put up seven straight starts with zero or one run, with a 0.92 ERA in that span.
-Matt McSwain has a 3.13 ERA in five starts
-Bryan Morris has made two of his best starts of the season, back to back, before blowing up this week
Every pitcher in Lynchburg has been doing well. Maybe they’re just all feeding off of each other, as Locke said. Maybe there’s a little sense of urgency to do well, with a large amount of new pitchers brought in to the system this year. As for Locke, maybe this was the spark he needed to snap out of a season long funk.
I have seen Locke pitch four times this season. I’ve done two video recaps (7/17 and 8/14). There’s no question that he has the talent, with a very nice curveball, and a good mix of pitches. Locke cites preparation and thinking too much about his pitches as a reason for his struggles. Maybe that has to do with the pressure of breaking out of his slump this year, as Locke mentioned there have been times this year where he was frustrated and didn’t think it was going to get better.
To borrow a line from “The Replacements”, it seems like Locke stepped in to some quick sand this season. No matter what he did, he just kept getting in deeper, until he couldn’t breathe. In all of the starts I’ve seen Locke make, it seems like all he has needed was for something to click in to place. Judging by his 2.73 ERA over his last six starts, the success of the rotation might be the rope he needed to get out of the quick sand known as the 2009 season, and back on the right track.
If this time next year Locke is in the middle of a Brad Lincoln like season, tearing up AA for half a season, then settling in to AAA, I won’t be surprised at all. I can’t stress enough the talent I’ve seen from Locke. As he said, the Nate McLouth trade is a deal where we’re not going to see immediate results, but where we have to wait until Locke and Gorkys make it to the majors and start producing. I can’t say anything on Gorkys, but I can say that the chances of Locke making an impact one day seem very strong.
Of course nothing could excuse him from being a Patriots fan…except maybe leading the Pirates to a World Series title.