The Fixes That Will Help Jeff Locke Avoid the Dreaded Regression

Jeff Locke may just be the story of the 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates.

The left-handed rookie starting pitcher went 8-2 prior to the All-Star Break with a 2.15 ERA. He was the only starter from the Opening Day rotation to not miss a scheduled start until he sat out of the final game before the All-Star Break. And to be fair, he sat only as a precaution to take advantage of the upcoming break to rest his stiff back.

In the post-All Star Break world that has the Pirates 69-44 with exactly 50 games remaining, it’s difficult to find flaws in the team with Major League Baseball’s best record, but people will certainly try. It seems like they’re starting with Jeff Locke.

Jeff Locke

Jeff Locke LAUGHS in the face of regression.

No, Locke’s numbers aren’t as fantastic as they were in his first 18 starts of the season when he held opposing hitters to just a .202 average at the plate. At 1-1 with a 4.03 ERA in four starts after the break with a .308 BAA, Locke’s numbers appear hideous in comparison to the numbers he posted in the first half that placed him as the only Pirate starting pitcher in the All-Star game.

Now, it seems Locke is the current subject of the ire of many Pirates fans and analysts who seemingly expect Locke to implode akin to Three Rivers Stadium on Feb. 11, 2001.

“I went through a series of questions in Miami where people were electrocuting me on Jeff,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said before Tuesday’s game. “The walks, the hits, he’s fallen apart, someone even went as far as to say they really didn’t think he would have as good a second half as he did the first half.”

The buzzword keying the talk of Locke’s implosion? Regression.

Before Locke’s performance is even discussed, “regression” in a baseball sense is not a bad thing, nor is it a good thing. According to FanGraphs, regression is a term used for statistical modelling that predicts outcomes based on averages. Regression carries no positive or negative influence, it simply is what it is.

Back to Hurdle’s quote, it would be pretty difficult in general for Locke to pitch like he did in the first half. He pitched at a level players like Justin Verlander and Clayton Kershaw pitch at, and we can be honest with ourselves when we say Locke is no Kershaw or Verlander.

Breaking down Locke’s four starts after the break, only one has really been that bad.

  • July 21 @ Cincinnati: 6 IP, 1 R, 1 H, 4 BB, 6 K, W, 63 Game Score
  • July 26 @ Miami: 6.2 IP, 2 R, 8 H, 6 BB, 9 K, L, 53 GSc
  • July 31 vs. St. Louis: 4 IP, 4 R, 10 H, 1 BB, 6 K, ND, 31 GSc
  • Aug. 6 vs. Miami: 5.2 IP, 3, 9 H, 3 BB, 4 K, ND, 40 GSc

It’s probably apparent the start at home against St. Louis is the “bad” one. And the Pirates actually ended up winning that one, 5-4, mostly by virtue of the five shutout innings pitched by the bullpen.

In his three others, Locke gave the Pirates over a 50 percent chance to win in two of the games he started and was a single out away from a quality start Tuesday against Miami. And although Bill James would say Locke’s start hurt the Pirates’ chances of winning, the Bucs won 4-3 on Josh Harrison’s walk-off home run.

And when talking about regression, there’s really no strong indicator as to what Locke is supposed to regress to. He has just over a year of service time in the major leagues, and you can look at this in either one of two ways via his numbers from his stints in the major leagues from the past two years compared to the superb year he’s enjoying in 2013.

  • 2011: 4 GS, 16.2 IP, 21 H, 12 R, 10 BB, 5 K, 6.48 ERA, 0-3
  • 2012: 6 GS, 8 appearances, 34.1 IP, 36 H, 21 R, 11 BB, 34 K, 5.50 ERA, 1-3
  • 2013 22 GS, 131.1 IP, 104 H, 38 R, 61 BB, 98 K, 2.47 ERA, 9-3

So, depending on how you see it, Locke is either atrocious or fantastic. The truth, though, may lie a little closer to the middle of those small sample sizes as indicated by Locke’s Fielding Independent Pitching.

FIP is supposed to resemble a true measure of what a pitcher’s ERA would truly be based on factors only he can control: strikeouts, walks, and home runs allowed.

Locke’s FIP?  3.70.

With Locke averaging roughly six innings per each one of his 22 starts this season, his FIP would flesh out to about 2.5 runs allowed per start if he stays close to his average. With the Pirates bullpen pitching the way it is, Locke “regressing” to holding teams to 5 total runs for every two starts he makes doesn’t sound as terrible as some may make it to be, now does it?

Of course, with his recent performances against St. Louis and Miami, the Pirates have some “fixes” laid out for Locke to get back to pitching “Jeff-like” as Locke called it. On the ends of Hurdle and pitching coach Ray Searage, the fixes entail “one physical and one mental” according to Hurdle.

Locke said Searage detailed the turn at the top of his delivery as one mechanical adjustment.

Locke said Searage detailed the turn at the top of his delivery as one mechanical adjustment.

“I’m more concerned about what he’s thinking right now,” Hurdle said. ” He still looks good when he looks at you. I think there are lessons to be learned for him. He’s got to always be the predator and the aggressor.”

For Locke, he spoke at length after the game following conversations he had already had with Searage. One of those conversations occurred on the mound in the third inning after Locke allowed two runs to score in the inning as the Marlins extended their early lead to 3-0.

“I’m somebody that needs to work quick on the mound,” Locke said. “Ray will come chirp at me once in a while and I gotta just pick the pace up a little bit–‘get the ball and you’re going,’ ‘no thinking,’ ‘you’re a little slow.'”

In addition to picking up his tempo, Locke also detailed the “physical” fix Hurdle mentioned in his post-game comments.

“I’m noticing a little bit of stuff on my delivery,” Locke said. “Not getting on my backside that well, sometimes using that turn I have at the top is a disadvantage for me because if you don’t come back out of that turn fluid you just fly yourself open. I really just gotta get my backside over the rubber better and continue to throw the ball downhill.”

Locke’s next start is slated for Sunday at Colorado in a ballpark that favors hitters more than any other venue in baseball with a park factor of 114, and it’s an opportunity to show the “predator” mentality he and Hurdle are looking for.

 

 

 

Nate Barnes

Author: Nate Barnes

Nate covers the Pirates beat for Pirates Prospects, and is an English Writing major at the University of Pittsburgh. Nate has covered the Pirates for Pittsburgh Sports Report, and covered Pitt Men's Basketball, Duquesne Men's Basketball, and Pitt Baseball beats prior to this summer. You can find Nate on Twitter @NateBarnes_ where he'll keep you updated on each and every time Clint Barmes breaks up a no-hit bid with one-out in the third inning of ballgames.

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  • jg941

    Good piece, but I think the primary flaw in your premise is that only one of Jeff’s post-ASG starts is “bad”.

    I think it’s pretty clear to most that 3 of those 4 starts are “bad” from a pitching perspective, not just one.

    8 hits and 6 walks in 6.2 innings is…….bad.

    9 hits and 3 walks in 5.2 innings is…….bad.

    If that’s not your premise, then I can see why you would draw a different conclusion. But the premise is wrong, which is why the concern is real.

    • tom2125

      Why is his premise wrong? Locke has been successful this year because he has been able to get out of innings with men on base. Locke has walked a ton of batters this year, but that’s his style. Its’s better for him to put somneone on base, than to give up an extra base hit. The 8 hits and 6 walks start was solid because he only gave up 2 runs. It doesn’t look pretty but that also matches his style on the mound.

      • https://profiles.google.com/116255365477483987850 jalcorn

        Getting out of innings with men on base is not a skill, its mostly luck and it won’t last. Great pitchers are not really better than average ones at leaving men on base. All pitchers strand about 70% of baserunners. Locke is wiggling along at 82% this year. Do you really believe he is doing something special that Greg Maddux couldn’t do (career LOB% of 72)? The very best LOB% pitchers can get up to 75% but they are dominant strikeout guys like Seaver and Unit. No one is maintaining a 80%+ strand rate.

        • IC Bob

          Jalcorn you have a premise that it is luck that Locke somehow escapes jams. I disagree. Their are certain pitchers who just know how to pitch with runners on. Locke fortunately for us appears to be one of those. I personally don’t like an article that claims we should be OK if his ERA goes up or their is regression if it supports the articles formula (regression is not a bad or a good think). I like Locke and I like his bulldog mentality. I do expect he will have some good starts here in the future and we will all forget that he had a couple of average starts after the all star break.

          • https://profiles.google.com/116255365477483987850 jalcorn

            No there are not. Its a myth based on small sample size. Believe what you want, but facts are facts.

            Do I need to list more hall of fame pitchers who just couldn’t strand more than 75% of runners. Are you suggesting that Locke is somehow a superior battler than Doug Drabek was (career 72% strand rate)? Jeff Locke is not suddenly a 82% strand pitcher, he will regress. The only way he can avoid giving up more runs in the future is to decrease the number of batters he is putting on base.

          • https://profiles.google.com/116255365477483987850 jalcorn

            No there are not. Its a myth based on small sample size. Believe what you want, but facts are facts.

            Do I need to list more hall of fame pitchers who just couldn’t strand more than 75% of runners. Are you suggesting that Locke is somehow a superior battler than Doug Drabek was (career 72% strand rate)? Jeff Locke is not suddenly a 82% strand pitcher, he will regress. Perhaps the fact that he has never stranded more than 70% in any minor league season is telling. The only way he can avoid giving up more runs in the future is to decrease the number of batters he is putting on base.

            • SteveW

              JAlcorn is right. Most of getting out of jams is LUCK. The top pitchers in baseball aren’t much better at it than the mediocre pitchers.

              The biggest factor in stranding a higher pct of baserunners is having a high strikeout rate – and Locke does not fit into that category.

            • IC Bob

              I guess you guys never watch Tom Glavine pitch. The dude would never give in. By the way he is going to the Hall. Yes their are bunches of pitchers who have great stuff but their are bunches like Maddox who never struck out anybody but base on FIP and all those other Sabermetric stats he was just lucky. I think you have to watch the guy pitch before you decide if its luck or he has something going. Additionally I have seen a lot of strikeout pitchers that can’t get a big out to save their lives. They can’t handle the pressure. They choke. Using Sabermetrics these guys are just unlucky.

    • https://profiles.google.com/116255365477483987850 jalcorn

      Agreed, three bad starts, one good since the break. Anytime you put 10+ guys on base in a start you are playing with fire. A WHIP north of 1.50 foretells an ERA above 4 without a doubt. Locke will not be able to keep “dancing through the raindrops” as they say. He has to stop walking so many batters and hope for continued BiP luck. I’m not sure this is surprising though, we all know he is much more likely to be a #4 SP than a #2.

  • emjayinTN

    Nate: Liked the article, but baseball is a long season of highs and lows. As a Rookie in the Rotation, he replaced Kevin Correia. The more said the worse the outcome. Let him adjust, learn, and move on. He has surpassed KC in every aspect, and had “experts” referring to him as our #1 or #2 SP in the first half. All a part of the learning process and I could not be happier that he and Gerrit Cole ares learning on the job and under the tutelege of veterans like Francisco Liriano, AJ Burnett, and Wandy Rodriguez.

  • CalipariFan506

    The main difference between good Locke and bad Locke to me is HR rate. So as long as he is keeping the ball in the park I’m not too worried. He had a HR rate in his first 75 innings that was brutal.

    • leadoff

      Keeping the ball in the yard is a Pirate M.O. this year, they all seem to have this trait and I believe it along with the defense is the key to why this team pitches as well as it does, this a pitch to contact staff and people have to catch the ball.

  • leadoff

    Runs are what counts, not hits, not walks, Walks have a lot to do with the umpire, especially when you are dealing with a corner pitcher, hits are determined by scorekeepers, last time out in my scorebook, Locke gave up 2 runs, the defense gave up 1 run, that is his usual 2 runs a game, you go to the hall of fame giving up 2 runs a game, they don’t count the hits or walks you give up, when he gets in trouble, he has the ability to get out of trouble, you have to have that trait to be a top pitcher, IMO, we are micromanaging this guy.
    Think about this in two innings pitched by Locke last time out, the left fielder missed a routine fly ball, the 3rd basemen botched 2 plays, the 1st basemen hit the umpire throwing the ball to 2nd base and through it all, Locke wound up giving up 3 runs, and none of those plays were written up as errors, to me, they were all errors.

    • jg941

      But I think you’re still discounting the reality that giving up high numbers of hits and walks that lead to very little runs…..is unsustainable. What gets you in the hall of fame is being able to give up 2 runs a game over a very long period of time, something that pitchers who have a WHIP of over 2.0 a game don’t achieve.

      I agree with you on that last game (although Jones’ throwing error was an error), but if you truly believe that walks and hits are just determined by umpires and scorekeepers, then you’ll never be able to focus in on what the pitcher might actually have to do with both, and be able to adjust or fix it.

      If you don’t identify the glitches that are leading to you giving up higher and higher amounts of each, then the runs (and losses) will most definitely catch up to you.

      • leadoff

        “walks and hits are “just” determined by umpires”

        I said walks have a lot to do with umpires, not that umpires are the only way that walks happen, obviously when pitches are out of the zone or down the middle, that is on the pitcher, but when a 3rd strike is in the zone and taken for a called ball, I grade that as an out.
        As far as scorekeepers are concerned, errors have everything to do with ERA’s and FIP’s if you take close look at the last game Locke pitched, his ERA jumped because of the scorekeeper, no way Alvarez should not have had 2 errors that cost Locke a couple runs and more pitches and possibly pitching into the 7th inning, that is where I get the scorekeeper affecting the pitching line.
        As far as glitches are concerned, this a very tough call, because hitters go into slumps and make changes that sometimes messes them up more than just riding it out. Pitchers go into slumps and want to change everything, when all they have to do is just keep pitching or get a little rest, if they pick something up in the films of course they try to correct it.
        The only concern I have about Locke is his legs, he is thin and the season is long, I wonder if his legs will hold out for a whole season.

    • SteveW

      Hits and walks, over the long run, inevitably lead to runs for all pitchers.

  • vanderbilt

    I keep wondering if his back is bothering him more than he is leading on.

    • leadoff

      If he can pitch with a bad back and give up 2-4runs, I would call that a problem all pitchers should have.

  • PiratesFan1981

    Locke has the potential to pitch in the 3 or 4 spot on any rotation in the majors. People act like Locke is a verlander or any other power arm. I think of Locke as a smoltz-type of pitcher. There is so much nemesis on his bad to good starts. All I can say is, he is still learning the majors. What he is doing, is what all people should expect. I have liked Locke before spring training broke. Just don’t expect the moon and the stars every time he pitches.

  • TonyPenaforHOF

    Any reason the Pirates passed on claiming Michael Young off waivers? Seems like a good RH bat off the bench for a playoff run.

  • CalipariFan506

    He has a no trade clause and already said he will not come here.

  • TonyC17

    Just to play devils advocate, lockes minor league strand rate was in the high 70s. I believe it was 77 percent. As much as everyone is correct. What I like about Locke is the ball doesn’t go down the middle of the plate. He continues to throw on the corners. It leads to walks yes, but also weakly hit ground balls. Last start tho, most pitches were all up. How that doesn’t continue