Did you see this coming? Did you see Jeff Locke having the National League’s 5th-best ERA in mid-June?
If you’re surprised, that’s because Locke’s performance sneaks up on you. The Pirates have needed nine starters to fill four spots because of injuries, poor pitching or in Gerrit Cole’s case, delaying a service time clock. Meanwhile, Locke stands on the mound every fifth day and personifies consistency.
“You’re fortunate it’s not you right now [out with injury],” Locke said. “I wanted to still be in the rotation at this time… It’s kind of pitching to survive.”
Survive? Can’t Locke see he has thrived? Take Friday night’s start in which Locke led the Pirates to a 3-0 victory over the $223-million Los Angeles Dodgers. Did you see any high-stress innings? No Dodgers baserunner got past first base on Locke. Did you see him labor against any hitters? Locke pitched into just four three-ball counts among the 22 batters he faced. Did you see Locke struggle to put guys back in the dugout? He garnered 17 of his 21 outs with four pitches or fewer, including two ground-ball double plays.
When all the zeroes on PNC Park’s scoreboard settled in, Locke had pitched seven shutout innings, allowed his only two hits on singles and no hits past the second inning, and he retired his last 11 hitters.
Once it was all said and done, the Dodgers had do ask themselves, did you see this coming?
“He pounds that fastball on the inner half extremely well, and tonight he had an outstanding breaking ball,” said Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis, who struck out twice on two Locke curveballs. “He’s doing what he’s doing for a reason.”
Batters saw his curveball just 17 times, but whiffed on it five times and Nick Punto saw it drop in and froze for Locke’s fifth and final strikeout to move to 6-1 on the season.
What Locke is doing is posting results that trail only Cy Young Award-winning Dodgers starter Clayton Kershaw has matched among lefties. His 2.19 earned run average is now 7th-best in the Majors. He is holding opposing hitters to a .205 average, 4th-best among MLB lefties. Over the last month, he has the NL’s 2nd-best ERA (1.21) and 4th-best opponents’ batting average (.196).
The key to Locke’s overwhelming success lies in overwhelming right-handed hitters inside. This season, the left-handed Locke is holding righties to a jaw-dropping .197 batting average, the best among any southpaw starter in the NL. Look at what he did to the Dodgers’ right-handed hitters Friday night:
Did you see that up there? Just 8 of his pitches to righties were to the right of the strike zone (from the catcher’s view), but 22 of them were to the left of the zone. Locke nibbled along the inside edge with 10 total pitches, getting mostly foul tips or having Russell Martin keep those strikes. Pirates manager Clint Hurdle called it Locke’s “best performance” of pitching inside to righties. Before the game, Hurdle said there was no hitter in baseball that wants to see inside strikes.
“When you can get the ball in tight for strikes, then you can move it six inches further, stay in there where they’re not sure where the strike is,” Hurdle said, mentioning future Hall-of-Famer Tom Glavine as a southpaw that learned to pitch to the glove side. “The truly great ones in the game are the ones that are able to go ahead and take ownership of the inside part of the plate.”
But it wasn’t just righties Locke carved up. Hurdle considered left-handed Adrian Gonzalez to be the greatest challenge for Locke, since Gonzalez went 3-for-4 with four RBI in Locke’s season debut.
Challenge accepted. Locke got Gonzalez to ground out to the right side of the infield all three time he faced him, all on two pitches or fewer. Did Gonzalez see that working?
“He was throwing strikes. If you were going to take pitches then were going to be 0-1, 0-2 in every at-bat,” Gonzalez said. “He made us swing the bat and we didn’t put too many good swings on him.”
Locke’s effectiveness comes less than a week after he was a different kind of effective in Chicago: taking a no-hitter to the 6th inning but giving up an eye-popping seven walks. He said he had to get back to the drawing board and was “happy… to shake that one off a little bit.” Hurdle was encouraged by Locke’s dropping from seven walks to one.
“What he showed you today is the ability to make an adjustment in four days,” Hurdle said. “That was probably most gratifying for all of us, especially for him.”
So Hurdle saw Locke’s command coming. He wanted to get six-plus innings from his starter, and his starter gave him seven “effortless” innings over 75 pitches and allowed the manager to give Locke “a breather” before his next start in Cincinnati. Locke’s longest inning was 17 pitches for a 1-2-3 frame in the 5th.
“I would have loved to be out there for the 8th,” Locke said. “But I’m pleased with the way the game went.”
The defense certainly helped. Locke generated 10 ground balls and his infield turned 9 of them into outs. It continues a common theme for Locke’s 2013 season. He has pitched well certainly, but other factors like defense and lucky sequencing have helped him prevent runs. The Pirates’ fielders have converted 76.7% of balls in play into outs behind Locke, the third-highest mark for any NL starter. It helps that Locke has drawn the 8th-highest percentage of ground balls in the NL.
See the luck? Locke has stranded an NL-most 84% of his baserunners, a number that will almost certainly regress to the average among starters since Locke is holding hitters to an unsustainable .357 OPS with runners in scoring position.
But don’t see those numbers and think Locke is all smoke and mirrors. His 3.82 FIP is better than league average, and his 4.06 xFIP is just below it. Locke is not striking as many hitters as he did in the minor leagues, but he is locating pitches well to get ground balls.
“It’s still uncomfortable,” Locke said when asked about his comfort level. “But the confidence is definitely there.”
What we will probably see in Jeff Locke’s future is not Tom Glavine, but instead a solid and consistent middle of the rotation starter who attacks righties inside for success using a four-pitch mix of fastball, sinker, changeup and curveball. Locke only got his pitch speed up to 92 mph Friday night, so he will not overpower hitters. But at age 25 and in his first full Major League season, Locke has provided a steady start. Every fifth day, he takes the hill and keeps the opponent to four runs or fewer to keep the game close for his offense.
Now the question may become: do you see Jeff Locke, All-Star?
Locke was aided by the Pirates’ (40-27) two-run 3rd inning off starter Stephen Fife. Alex Presley led off with an infield single and Russell Martin singled to left. Then Andrew McCutchen hit an opposite-field double to right, scoring both runners with no outs. The Bucs had a chance for more, but McCutchen was thrown out at home by shifted-in shortstop Hanley Ramirez, and Neil Walker had to be halted at third base on Pedro Alvarez’s book rule double to left field.
That was all Pittsburgh could manage off Fife, who allowed six hits and three walks. Andrew McCutchen ran his way to a 3-0 Pirates lead in the 8th inning. He led off with a single to left field, then advanced to third on Gaby Sanchez’s single to center, just beating the throw from Andre Ethier. McCutchen scored on a sacrifice fly into foul territory, even though it was caught by first baseman Adrian Gonzalez.
The Dodgers’ only chance came once Locke was removed after 75 pitches. Mark Melancon, who had not pitched since last Friday, came on for the 8th. Ethier hit a one-out infield single away from the shift. After Melancon struck out A.J. Ellis with three whiffs, Jerry Hairston, Jr. doubled to the North Shore Notch, but Ellis was held at third base. Melancon got pinch-hitter Juan Uribe to swing and miss on a 2-2 curveball to strand two and keep L.A. scoreless.
Even with a 3-0 lead handed to Pirates closer Jason Grilli, the 9th inning was interesting. Leadoff hitter Yasiel Puig reached on his second infield single of the evening, the only Dodgers batter with more than one hit. Nick Punto’s bunt straddled the third base line and stayed fair. Possible tying run Gonzalez stepped in and worked the count full before Grilli struck him out with a fastball. Grilli then got Hanley Ramirez to pop out to the catcher and Mark Ellis to strike out to complete the win.