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 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.
**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.