First Pitch: The Five Stages of Jeff Locke Regression Grief

All season on this site we had been talking about how Jeff Locke was due for regression. The left-hander had an ERA around 3.00, and eventually that dropped as low as 2.01 on June 19th. That would have made him one of the best starters in the majors. His advanced metrics suggested a different story. Locke’s FIP bounced around a lot in the first half of the season, but from the start of June he has been consistently in the 3.70-4.00 range.

The main reason we were saying that Locke would regress was because of that FIP. Fielding Independent Pitching measures what a pitcher controls, and removes any outside help that could be influenced by other players on the team, or luck. In this case, Locke was playing above his head, stranding an unsustainable amount of runners.

Lately Locke has seen some struggles. There was the horrible outing today, which James Santelli recapped. There was a four run in four inning game on July 31st. The other starts have been good, but we’re just not seeing the first half Locke who strands everyone and throws seven shutout innings.

I don’t want to excuse Locke’s start today, because it was a horrible outing. It wasn’t just about bad luck either, as James detailed some of the things Locke was doing wrong. That being said, if you remove this start, Locke hasn’t been bad this season. The sentiment that Locke is falling apart lately just isn’t true. The idea that he was struggling before this game is also false.

What is happening is that Locke is finally showing that regression. He’s not getting out of every jam. As a result, he’s actually giving up runs and looking more like a #3-4 starter. If you take out today’s game, in every situation his numbers look fine.

Think he’s struggling since the All-Star break? He’s got a 3.54 ERA in 28 innings.

Second half problems? 3.32 ERA in 40.2 innings since the start of July.

The only way you could get a bad group of starts before this one is if you took the July 31st start where he gave up four runs in four innings, and didn’t include some of the fine starts surrounding that poor outing.

We're currently on Stage 4 of regression grief for Jeff Locke -- depression. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

We’re currently on Stage 4 of regression grief for Jeff Locke — depression. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

I see this all the time with regression candidates. It’s almost the five stages of regression grief.

Stage 1 – Denial

Every time you mention that a guy who is performing well will eventually regress, you automatically get people who deny the entire idea of regression. Or they just deny that the player will regress.

Stage 2 – Anger

If you dare bring up the subject more than once, you’ll spark some rage.

Stage 3 – Bargaining

“What if he just knows how to pitch?” “What if he’s the next (Insert pitcher who wasn’t even a regression candidate) who always plays above his head?” “Why can’t he be the exception?” And a bunch of other questions that start to accept that regression is a real thing, but hope that it isn’t real in this case.

Stage 4 – Depression

The player actually regresses. Season over. Pack it up. This guy shouldn’t even be in the majors. Even though we were comparing him to Clayton Kershaw two months ago, he had one bad start and a bunch of “Not Clayton Kershaw” starts to go with it, and that means he should be done for the year.

Stage 5 – Acceptance

We haven’t reached that stage with Locke, but this is the stage where you accept what the pitcher is, and laugh about that time you thought his 2.01 ERA in 89 innings was enough to make him the next Tom Glavine.

Acceptance doesn’t always include rational thinking. If it’s a pitcher like Locke, who has a 3.85 FIP and should be expected to put those results up going forward, then he’s going to get the Video Game/Fantasy Baseball/Charlie Morton Isn’t a Good Pitcher treatment, where every pitcher is expected to have a 3.00 ERA or lower, and anyone who is close to league average is actually someone who should be in the minor leagues.

On the season Locke has a 2.90 ERA and a 3.85 FIP. That includes tonight’s start. I think people are starting to enter the “Depression” stage, with the realization that Locke isn’t going to be a top of the rotation starter. But “regression” doesn’t mean that if a player isn’t a top of the rotation starter he falls to the other end of the spectrum. It just means he regresses to his skill level. In this case, Locke is still expected to put up numbers that are around the league average. He’s got some things to work on to make sure tonight’s start doesn’t happen again (lowering his walk rate would be a good place to start). But Locke is still a major league pitcher, and he’s still a guy with the ceiling of a #3-4 starter. Eventually we can all get to the “Acceptance” stage and realize Locke’s true value.

Links and Notes

**The latest episode of the Pirates Prospects Podcast is out: P3 Episode 17: The Pirates Issues With RISP, Platoons, and Small Ball.

Prospects

**Prospect Notebook: What Remaining Minor League Promotions Can We Expect?

**A Quick Look at Tyler Glasnow’s Declining Walk Totals.

**Prospect Watch: Howard Homers Twice, Polanco and Cunningham Go Deep in Altoona Win.

**DSL Prospect Watch: Pirates2 Win Tenth Straight in Shutout Over Braves.

**Minor League Schedule: Sadler Looks to Stay Perfect on the Road.

Pirates

**Pirates Lose 15-5 as Jeff Locke Falls Apart in 3rd Inning.

**Pirates Notebook: Gerrit Cole Stays in Rotation, But For How Long?

**Agent: Kris Johnson Called Up to Pirates.

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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  • http://www.facebook.com/adrian.carnelutti Adrian Carnelutti

    Perhaps a more important question going forward is “Is Locke the No 3 starter in a post season series, given that Liriano and Burnett will be 1 &2. And if not Locke then who?

    • http://www.facebook.com/ian.rothermund Ian Rothermund

      Wandy Rodriguez most likely. I would wager that it will be those three, plus Morton and Locke.

  • Kevin_Young

    Noooo, he’s Tom Glavine!

  • https://profiles.google.com/100508923100437214310 William Beckley

    Either you’re stretching back too far to feel better about his numbers, or I’m looking at too narrow of a sample and causing myself to be in stage 4.

    Lets look at Jeff’s last 5 starts combined: 24.2 innings, 40 hits, 17 walks, 18 earned runs. Clearly atrocious. You argue his numbers are fine but for today? Ok, taking out today, his previous 4 starts were: 22 innings, 30 hits, 14 walks, 10 earned runs. Now, that ERA wouldn’t be awful, but to take the ERA alone and say he’s been fine is to ignore the huge walk totals and whopping 2.00 WHIP. Again, that’s a 2.00 WHIP in his 4 prior starts NOT including yesterday, which cant simply be ignored when those previous 4 starts show that kind of trend, rather than just a fluke. To me, that is far from fine.

    I certainly did not expect Locke to keep pitching at the level he was. I’m not panicking at this point either. But to say he’s been fine with the number of hits and walks he’s allowed over past 5 starts, or even the past 4 if you ignore yesterday, is rather misleading to me.

    So either I’m a stage 4 griefer, or you’re a stage 4 Pollyanna. The truth is probably somewhere in between.

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

      In the closing paragraph:

      “He’s got some things to work on to make sure tonight’s start doesn’t happen again (lowering his walk rate would be a good place to start).”

      The walks are a concern. But even with those walks, he’s got a 3.90-4.00 FIP with his second half and post-break numbers. So pretty much in line with his overall 3.85 FIP.

      The walk problem has been an issue all year, and the issue has been that he’s putting too many people on base. Now he’s actually allowing people to score, so the walks are noticeable. I was saying he would regress originally because of the walks. Now he has. So the walks have already been accounted for above. That’s a big reason he’s got a 3.85 FIP on the season.

  • emjayinTN

    Tim: Well stated. Almost all pitchers of all skill levels will “hit the wall” during the season – what they do from that point distinguishes the best from the rest. Locke’s command has been a little bit shaky, and just when you think he has lost it, he goes out the next time and has a good game. It happens, and if a pitcher is mentally able to work through it, he is a keeper. I hope Jeff has what it takes, and now is the time when having guys around like Russell Martin, AJ Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez, and Francisco Liriano supporting and assisting Ray Searage makes a big difference.

    Here are the stats of one of the best pitchers in MLB for 3 of his starts in July – 19IP, 30H, 13ER,10K/7W. Mixed in among those 3 starts, he threw a 7 inning, 1 hit shutout. Justin Verlander.

  • skliesen

    In the future, please seek my permission before writing an article about me, Tim.

  • Bucco_Joe

    Locke is regressing, Cole is having his innings cut, Wandy isn’t ready yet, and the bullpen is being overworked. Not a good situation at all for a team with a pop gun offense that lives and dies by its pitching. Have no fear 2015 is near.

    • http://www.facebook.com/lee.young.161 Lee Young

      Last I checked we werre still up 2 games and the Reds just lost their second in a row to the Brewers!

      All teams are imperfect!

      Foo

      • Bucco_Joe

        We are up 2 games now, lets see where we are coming off this upcoming 7 game road trip. Imperfect is a polite term for this offense. They shoot themselves in the foot numerous times in the game with bad ABs.

  • CalipariFan506

    Ya you guys are whistling through the graveyard if you think Locke is going to be of any help down the stretch.

  • http://www.facebook.com/lee.young.161 Lee Young

    I’m still in Stage 3 hoping he ‘unregresses’. If not, I am skipping Stage 4 and going right to Stage 5.

    :) :) :) :)

    I’m just a Bargaining Foo

  • jg941

    I think you’re still sugar-coating Locke’s expectations, maybe still a bit in the denial phase.

    You’re leaving out xFIP, which focuses a little more on HR rates, and with Locke now eminently hittable and home-run-able, it’s probably a better predictor of what he might really be – it has Locke now up at 4.19.

    But I maintain that the most comprehensive, and best, pitching metric is really SIERA , which pegs Locke at a 4.53.

    If you think about it, THAT is really the kind of pitcher he’s looked like in his starts over the last month – not even a solid #5, but a guy you wouldn’t be too excited about having as your #5.

    Since those are numbers that even Step 5 won’t make you feel better about, we may have to take up residence in Step 1 just for sanity’s sake (or start taking a more serious look at the waiver wire).

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

      I usually go with FIP over xFIP for lefties at PNC, since PNC Park can lead to lower HR/FB rates for left-handers. So going with xFIP, Locke would be worse because that would assume a 10% HR/FB ratio. But I don’t think that he’s going to be expected to have a 10% HR/FB rate pitching half of his games at PNC.

  • Andrew

    I just question if fatigue/inning accumulation is an issue that is compounding his recent performance. I know that he is still well below his career high in innings pitched but are AA and AAA innings equal to major league innings in terms of exposure? (or innings even a sound way to measure fatigue/exposure) Maybe it’s a bit of bargaining, but I want to believe recent performance is a combination of regression and fatigue, like 80% regression, 20% fatigue. (b/c you can at least counteract fatigue)

    However this just leads to a lot questions and inferences and applying Occam razor leads to the realization that this is regression. I just wish we had a better template of what to expect going forward given the disparate performances.

  • Monkshot

    Great article. I think we all knew it was coming, but it’s still a tough pill to swallow.

    There are a ton of new, some say fair weathered Pirate fans who don’t understand or want to believe baseball has numbers that can predict this kind of regression. The only thing Pirate fans have to equate this to is James McDonald’s struggles last year, and automatically figure the same fate is in store for Locke. I for one, fully expect Locke to bounce back and be the 3 or 4 the numbers say he is. I just wish his decent back to earth wasn’t so crash and burn like.

  • https://www.facebook.com/roberto.calvi.31 Roberto Calvi

    Seems like something physical must be going on. It’s not a matter of working through it. Maybe he just needs to miss a start or 2 so he”ll be ready for the stretch run. At this point you’ll get neither so they might as well give him some rest.

  • rburgh

    As one of the deniers, I just want to point out that his command isn’t anywhere near where it was in May and June. His stats are worse because he’s pitching worse, and if the command comes back, the stats will too.

  • rburgh

    His walk rate since July 1 is 5.6 per 9, vs. 3.8 per nine through June.

  • CalipariFan506

    Collapse deniers are sounding crazier and crazier by the day. The rational fans know this is an 85 win team. Just going to be a really painful trip to those 85 wins.