I wrote two months ago that Locke would not continue to dominate as he dominated the early part of the season. What he has done in those two months surprised me: he kept pitching to prevent runs.
Locke’s winning performance in the Pirates’ 3-2 Sunday victory in Cincinnati was indicative of the type of pitcher he is becoming. His control remains rough as he walked 4 of 22 batters and allowed his only run to score on a wild pitch that flew away from him. Continuing to miss the strike zone 59% of the time, third-worst in baseball, will lead to more men on base and more runs allowed.
Despite the control issues, Locke appears well-suited for the defense he pitches in front of. He is generating more ground balls this year to an infield that turns those grounders into an assembly line of outs. Locke got six more groundouts Sunday versus one flyout. Most importantly, he did not allow a hit after the first batter and totaled six strikeouts, including two each of top-lineup hitters Chris Heisey and Brandon Phillips. His 6 hits allowed per 9 innings is second in baseball only to Cy-Young winner Clayton Kershaw.
Just as anything can happen in 10 starts, anything can happen in 20. Locke’s BABIP (.223) and strand rate (83%) are still unsustainably high given his relatively low strikeout rate, and it’s not unfair to say he is unlikely to maintain his 2.11 ERA the entire season.
A larger sample changes my analysis, though. Locke attacks right-handers with zeal on the inner third of the plate. He gets pretty weak contact from all hitters and his pitching to contact benefits from a well-run defense. Jeff Locke, a left-hander who uses the fielders behind him well, fits well into the Pirates system and could continue to dominate for the season’s final two months.
Oh Right, The Game
The Pirates went 2-for-11 with runners in scoring position Sunday, still worse than it should be even though the improving Homer Bailey notched a career-high 12 strikeouts. That fact can be overlooked today solely because it was enough to win after Garrett Jones started the scoring by hitting a solo home run.
Those two hits with RISP both came in the 7th inning, and both were semi-solidly-hit ground balls. Michael McKenry cranked a near-homer double to left-center, and Jordy Mercer bounced a single past Phillips to put the Pirates ahead by one. Clint Barmes then singled and Jose Tabata bounced another hit off Phillips’ glove to score Mercer. Prime examples of regression in those situations: batted balls finding holes.
Then the Bucs’ bullpen did Bucs bullpen things. Tony Watson, Bryan Morris and Justin Wilson tag-teamed a scoreless 7th. Mark Melancon was missing some command, but danced out of the jam allowing only one run thanks to a ground-ball double play. Jason Grilli gave up a single but nothing else for his league-leading 30th save.
All in all, Pittsburgh’s offense remains middling at best while the run-prevention side gave the Pirates multiple opportunities to record a sweep instead of a series loss. Dropping a series to the Reds with a minus-2 run differential is just about what the Pirates should have expected heading into Cincinnati. It’s a bad result, but not a demoralizing one as they start a four-game series in Washington that could easily knock the sliding Nationals completely out of the playoff picture.