Locke’s Control and a Weak Bench Are Two Concerns From Tonight’s Loss

The Pittsburgh Pirates lost their second game in a row, falling 2-0 to the Miami Marlins tonight. Thus begins The Collapsening 3.0.3. Or 3.0.4. It’s hard to keep track. There were two things that stood out in tonight’s loss, which have both been problems as of late.

Jeff Locke Pirates

Jeff Locke walked six batters and struck out nine tonight. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Jeff Locke Struggled With His Control

The big story with Jeff Locke this year is the debate over whether he will maintain his high ERA, or see a regression. His strand rate has been higher than average all year. Coming into the night it was 83.2%, which is much higher than the league average of 70%. Tonight Locke stranded 95.2% of his runners, bumping that season rate up to 84.3%. But it wasn’t that he continued to strand runners. It was that he was giving away too many free passes.

Locke walked six batters tonight, which is the second worst total of his career. He combined that with eight hits. One of those hits was a solo home run by Giancarlo Stanton. The only other run came off an infield single by Placido Polanco with the bases loaded. After the game, Locke was asked about the ability to stand runners.

“I would just say knowing that you have guys behind you that are going to pick the ball up for you,” Locke said. “Knowing that if you make your pitch or if you get that big strikeout when it’s needed. For me really it’s just trusting those guys behind me. A lot of trust in Russ back there to, and Michael when he’s there. We all work together. They know I can make pitches, and I know they can make plays. Everyone believes that at the same time, we know we’re going to strand some runners.”

That was very accurate tonight. A big reason why Locke limited the damage was due to a career high in strikeouts. The left-hander struck out nine batters on the night, with three of those coming with runners in scoring position.

He also was bailed out by his defense a few times. Opposing starter Henderson Alvarez doubled off the wall in the second inning with two outs and Jeff Mathis on first. Mathis tried to score on the play, but was gunned down by Neil Walker on a relay from Starling Marte. Later in the game Locke had the bases loaded and one out. He gave up an infield single to pinch hitter Placido Polanco, bringing in the first run of the night. Adeiny Hechavarria followed that by hitting a sharp liner directly at Gaby Sanchez, who was playing well off the first base bag.  Without the shift, the ball would have gone for at least a two-run single, putting runners at first and third with one out and breaking the game open.

Again, the amazing ability to strand runners is not the story tonight. The story is the high walk rates. Locke has seen his control struggle lately. In the first two months of the season he walked 26 in 64 innings (3.7 BB/9). In the last two months, tonight included, he has a 4.8 BB/9 ratio.

A big problem this year has been that Locke has struggled with control from the windup. Coming into the night he had a 4.8 BB/9 with the bases empty, and a 3.0 BB/9 with runners on. It’s not unusual for pitchers to have that split. Across the league, pitchers have a 2.8 BB/9 with men on, and a 3.2 BB/9 with the bases empty. So Locke is close to league average with men on base, but well below average with the bases empty.

I asked Clint Hurdle about these splits after the game, and Hurdle noted that Locke has added a turn to his delivery recently.

“He put a little turn in his delivery in Spring Training, give him a little more deception, get his arm up higher,” Hurdle said. “So it’s something he’s continued to grow with and work with. The overall numbers are very, very good for this young man as he continues to grow and pitch. We like him in our rotation.”

Hurdle also added with a smile: “We’re talking about a kid that made the All-Star game too, by the way.”

Locke actually worked on adding that turn at the start of the 2012 season, as we reported last year. The turn was aimed at improving his command, and of course adding deception. If he is having trouble only with the windup, then it makes sense that this could be the issue. I raised the question of whether the Pirates would ever consider going with an unconventional approach with Locke and have him pitch from the stretch with the bases empty.

“Probably not in his first full season in the major leagues. We’ll give him a chance to develop,” Hurdle said.

That’s a smart move. The walks are an issue, but the rest of Locke’s game has worked. You don’t really want to alter anything with him at this point. Still, there is some concern with the walks. He’s done an amazing job stranding runners. But that still doesn’t project to last, unless Locke has found some secret way to strand runners at an above average rate that other pitchers don’t know about (including his own teammates). He would still be a good pitcher with a regression,  but he can only help himself and limit that potential regression by limiting the walks.

It’s a simple concept. The more walks, the more runners on base. The more runners on base, the more potential runs when the strand rate eventually drops back to a normal level.

The Pirates Need Offense off the Bench

Here are two stats prior to tonight’s game.

144 – That’s the amount of pinch hit at-bats the Pirates have had this season. That number ranks sixth in the majors.

.580 – That’s the OPS by the Pirates pinch hitters this season. That OPS ranks 21st in the majors.

Combine the two and you have a pinch hitting crew that ranks in the bottom third of the league in performance. That’s a problem no matter what, but it’s a bigger problem since the Pirates have been relying on their bench more than 24 other teams in the league. Tonight the Pirates went 0-for-3 in pinch hitting attempts, including outs in two situations with runners in scoring position.

Travis Snider came up in the eighth inning and Gaby Sanchez on second. Snider grounded out, advancing Sanchez to third base. Michael McKenry ended the inning with a strikeout. McKenry wasn’t technically a pinch hitter, since he replaced Russell Martin on the field an inning earlier. However, McKenry has been part of the problem on the bench this year.

The Pirates put together a small comeback attempt in the ninth inning. With two outs, Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez hit back-to-back singles to put runners at first and third and the tying run on base. Jose Tabata came on to pinch hit and grounded out to second to end the game. Tabata was going up against a right-hander, and has been doing well this year against right-handers. However, he is currently dealing with an arm issue after being hit with a pitch earlier this week, so he isn’t exactly 100 percent.

The Pirates need to find some way to upgrade their bench in the next week. Tony Sanchez would be the ideal replacement for McKenry, but Sanchez has been struggling recently. He has had some throwing problems defensively, and offensively his bat has cooled with a .736 OPS in the month of July. That has come up some in the last few games, as Sanchez is 7-for-11 with a homer in his last four games. He still needs to improve the throwing problems, but if the bat heats back up the Pirates might want to consider making the switch.

Travis Snider has also been a problem this year. He had a great start with a .300 average and a .799 OPS in the month of April. Since then he has hit for a .197 average and a .557 OPS in 178 at-bats. He’s also not providing a platoon advantage, with a .650 OPS against right-handers, and a .304 OPS against lefties.

The Pirates will need to find a way to get more production from the bench over the next week. The best way to do that would be to add a starter at first base and right field and move one of the current starters down to the bench, improving from the top down. If a starting upgrade isn’t available, they’ll have to find a few guys who can upgrade the bench.

Notes

**Russell Martin left the game in the seventh inning due to a hitch in his left knee. The injury came earlier in the game in a play at the plate with Jeff Mathis.

“On the play at the plate I might have tweaked it a little bit, Mathis running into me,” Martin said. “But I don’t have a severe injury that’s going to put me on the disabled list or anything.”

Martin said he could play tomorrow, but expects to get tomorrow off. He wouldn’t have played both of the remaining games since Sunday is a day game after a night game, so giving him off Saturday will allow him to rest the knee while still getting the same amount of playing time this weekend.

**Wandy Rodriguez threw two sets of 70 pitches from 80-90 feet today in the first part of his rehab process. Rodriguez said after the game that he felt fine, and that he will be re-evaluated tomorrow. If he feels alright he could throw again from flat ground tomorrow.

Tim Williams

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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  • https://profiles.google.com/115681610287909909293 David Cicotello

    Great column…I’ve referred to it as Apocollapse 3.0…a hybrid term that describes what WOULD be certainly a devastating “end-of-season” event…let’s hope it doesn’t

  • joe g.

    Question for The Pirates Prospects staff. How many wins would the Pirates have today if they average 4.0 runs per game or 4.2 runs per game?

    • honusty

      Agreed. The offense continues to be bad. Locke was not at his best, but he still held the Marlins to 2 runs.

  • https://www.facebook.com/roger.huffmanii Roger Huffman II

    I don’t dispute that the bench isn’t weak or that it doesn’t need upgraded. 1) how can Huntington/Hurdle justify that Jose Tabata, Michael McKenry, and Travis Snider are MLB caliber players. They can’t honestly say that Tony Sanchez, Alex Presley, and Andrew Lambo aren’t “ready” when they continue trotting those other bums out there. 2) How come Cutch never gets criticized for not coming through in clutch spots? I bet his numbers after the 7th inning with RISP are terrible .3) If guys like Marte, Walker, Jones, Martin, Alvarez, and Cutch would actually be what is called productive with runners on base throughout the game, the cruddy bench would not stick out like a sore thumb so much. Yet, no one wants to call out “The Pittsburgh Kid” for being lousy all year or the alleged “All Stars.” If they did their jobs, the bench wouldn’t be that much of an issue. David Todd has been on a crusade for the last year or so of the “best 25.” I agree 100% The Pirates can’t honestly say that Harrison, Tabata, McKenry, and Snider are among their best 25

  • IC Bob

    Locke reminds me a lot of Tom Glavine. He just has a presence on the mound and he NEVER gives in. I do think he can maintain good numbers (probably not at the Cy Young pace he is on). I was one of the people who though Locke should not have even made the team yet now I am convinced he has really bright future. I also believe his mental make up allows him to pitch better then he really is. I am glad he is on our side.

    • Kevin_Young

      In what world is 14 baserunners in 6 innings “Glavine-like”? If he doesn’t fix his control, it’s going to come back to bite him.

      • joe g.

        True, but this is Locke’s first full season in the majors. Glavine struggled early in his career. I get KY’s point.

      • IC Bob

        14 base runners and how many runs did he give up. Thats a guy who is pitching and competing. As he gets better the walks will go down however you can’t argue that the guy gets the big outs (look at the ERA and the record).

  • leadoff

    I don’t see a problem with Locke’s walks, I think he will always have a lot of wallks, he is a corner pitcher and will not give in to the middle of the plate, he did that with Stanton, bet it does not happen again if he pitches to Stanton. A lot of his walks today were because of the patience of the Marlins hitters, they did not fish very much and they took a lot of close pitches, don’t forget they also struck out a lot.
    I might have asked Hurdle why he is managing backwards if I had a chance to talk to him, some of these close games could have been altered somewhat with a little better managing.
    If you have the nerve and I know around him it might take nerve, the next time you get near Hurdle, please do me a favor and ask him this question.
    If he believes in hitting splits so much that at every chance he gets he goes righty, lefty at the plate, but on the mound he refuses to go lefty, righty even when the hitter has very poor split stats. I just would like someone to ask him why he has this philosophy and I will not accept his pitchers can pitch to anyone or they can pitch multiple innings, the stats still say most of time he has a better shot going left on left or right on right in many situations. I realize there are times when a manager is managing for later innings and other days, but their are times when a simple lefty on lefty change would alter a game considerably and tomorrow should take care of itself.
    Example: Morris against Harper, Locke left in the game too long against Stanton and then removing Locke after he gets the next two outs?

  • Y2JGQ2

    agreed- he makes little sense at times