If you look at Jeff Locke’s numbers from the 2013 season, you won’t find much wrong on the surface. He put up a 3.52 ERA in 166.1 innings last year, with a 4.03 FIP that suggests he over-performed his season numbers a bit, but no more than Charlie Morton (3.26/3.60), Wandy Rodriguez (3.59/4.42), or Jeanmar Gomez (3.35/3.85).
But the season numbers don’t tell the story with Locke. During the first half of the season, he had a 2.15 ERA in 109 innings. During the second half, he had a 6.12 ERA in 57.1 innings. I didn’t think he was as good as the first half numbers, but I also didn’t think he was as bad as the second half numbers.
Locke’s BABIP was .228 in the first half, and .365 in the second half. Typically starting pitchers are around .290-.300. His strand rate was 83.3% in the first half, and 67% in the second half. Starters are normally around 70%. So you had a case where Locke was lucky in the first half, and unlucky in the second half, hitting two extremes with neither telling his true talent level.
Strand rates and BABIP are things that pitchers have very little control over. You’d like to think that a pitcher can focus harder when runners are on base, and by doing so, improve their strand rate. But that raises questions about why they can’t do this before putting runners on base. And BABIP involves where a ball is hit. A pitcher might be able to have some control of the area or the side of a field where a ball is hit, but he can’t control exactly where it is hit, which is why about 29-30% of balls hit into play fall in for hits.
One thing Locke has control over is his walk rate. The biggest decline in the second half for Locke came with his control numbers. He went from a 10.8% walk rate in the first half to a 13.5% walk rate. His first two months of the season were the only ones under 11%. After that, each month was over 12%, with July and August coming in over 13%. The league average walk rate last year was 7.9%.
Last night, Locke’s control looked great. He struck out ten batters in six innings, while walking one. Granted, this was against High-A hitters, but Locke did a good job of pounding the strike zone. Out of his 82 pitches, 59 went for strikes. That’s a 72% rate, which is much higher than his 59% rate in the majors last season. I wouldn’t say that his second half walk issues are behind him based on that outing, but there were no issues with his control this time around.
Locke is currently nearing the end of his rehab work. He threw 100 pitches overall last night, with the final 20 coming in the bullpen after his six innings were complete. His entire rehab work has been in Bradenton, but that hasn’t stopped him from watching every Pirates game.
“I just want to get back up there with those guys. They’re doing such a tremendous job,” Locke said of his teammates in Pittsburgh. “I’ve watched every single game at home, and it stinks. It sucks watching those guys walk it off [from Bradenton]. It’s awesome, and I’m so proud of those guys. It’s good the way they’ve been throwing the ball too. It’s been absolutely fantastic. You want to be a part of that.”
Locke was a part of that last year, when the Pirates surprised everyone by winning 94 games and advancing to game five of the NLDS. He was a big part of the success due to the first half of his season. Being with the team last year, Locke didn’t understand what it was like to be on the outside of the situation in Pittsburgh. He mentioned last night that Gerrit Cole described that desire when he was promoted to the majors last year. Cole said that he just wanted to come up and be a part of the winning in Pittsburgh.
“That’s how I feel right now, watching those guys,” Locke said. “Something special going on in Pittsburgh, and I think everyone wants to be a part of it.”
The flip side to this is that, with the Pirates getting good performances, there might not be an opportunity for Locke. Francisco Liriano, Charlie Morton, and Gerrit Cole have only made a few starts combined, but there’s no reason why they shouldn’t have guaranteed rotation spots at this point. Edinson Volquez, who everyone was skeptical about heading into the season, looked great in his first two appearances — one a relief appearance and one a start.
The one early weakness looks to be Wandy Rodriguez. You don’t want to make much out of the numbers from two starts, especially when those numbers include a 30% HR/FB ratio (league average is around 10%). The bigger concern with Rodriguez is that his average fastball through the first two games is 87.4 MPH, which is down from his 89.4 MPH last year, prior to his injury.
Rodriguez currently looks like the weakest link in the rotation. I don’t expect the Pirates to remove him any time soon, and especially not after two starts. That means there might not be a spot for Locke when he’s done for his rehab. Even if there is a spot, there is also a lot of competition for that spot, from guys like Stolmy Pimentel, Brandon Cumpton, and Casey Sadler.
“I think it’s no different than when you get called up,” Locke said of his current situation. “Not everybody is Gerrit, where they make room for somebody. Not everybody is another guy, a veteran that comes in and you’ve just got a spot. It’s right back to square one, I think. Of course I want to be up there. Do I feel like I deserve to be up there? Absolutely. But I understand how it goes too. We’ve got a lot of depth, starting depth. They’re all good too. There’s no slouches up there.”
Locke could still make one more rehab start in the minors. Technically he has 30 days to be on rehab assignment, which could give him more than one start, although the Pirates couldn’t make a case that he’s still rehabbing if he’s throwing 100 pitches every five days. If Rodriguez continues his struggles, or if an injury comes up, then a spot could open for Locke. Otherwise, it’s likely that he’d go to Triple-A to serve as depth.
“I earned it my first time and my second time [in the majors],” Locke said. “I earned it last year in camp. I don’t feel like it’s going to be given to me at all. But I’m ready to take it on and ready to get back up there again.”